Decorum is defined as behavior in good taste, in propriety, conduct or appearance. That would not describe Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Cleveland.
Within minutes of the 1 ½-hour debate ending, assorted commentators likened the event to kindergarteners on a playground, a food fight, a dumpster fire, and a professional wrestling exhibition.
Health protocols eliminated the pre-debate handshake between the President of the United States Donald Trump and the former vice president Joe Biden. Given the acrimonious tone of the exchanges between the two septuagenarians, it may have been for the best that there was no possibility of physical contact afterward.
The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, resembled a lion tamer who entered a cage without a whip, armed only with the volume and tone of his voice. Wallace did what he could to maintain order, but from the get-go that was a losing proposition.
On multiple occasions, Wallace admonished the Republican incumbent to cease his interruptions of the Democratic challenger, while the latter frequently interjected cutting remarks about the man he hopes to replace as the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
The debate was a fact-checker’s nightmare, with Trump and Biden making claims and counterclaims at a rapid pace.
After thanking the event hosts, Case Western Reserve University, Wallace began with a question about the Supreme Court of the United States and Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed to late associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Elections have consequences,” Trump said. “We have the Senate. We have the White House. We won the election and therefore we have the right to choose her.”
Biden, in response, said, “The American people have a right to say who the Supreme Court nominee is. …We should wait and see what the outcome of this election is.”
As that topic segued into discussion of the potential fate of the Affordable Care Act in a conservative majority Supreme Court, Trump said that a Biden presidency would move the country toward socialism and Biden retorted “I am the Democratic Party right now” when Trump accused him of being captive of his party’s left-wing.
Not long after, as Wallace attempted to ask Trump about his status of his plan to replace the ACA, popularly referred to as Obamacare, Trump said, “I’m debating you, not him.”
As their argument over health care policy continued, Biden said, “Here’s the deal: Everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie,” and followed that with “You picked on the wrong guy on the wrong night at the wrong time.” Soon after, Biden referred to Trump as “this clown.”
As Trump’s interruptions continued, an exasperated Biden asked, “Will you shut up, man?”
Things did not improve when Wallace shifted the “discussion” to the COVID-19 pandemic. “You should get out of your bunker and get out of the sand trap and get out of your golf club,” Biden said, asserting that the president was responsible for the 200,000-plus deaths linked to COVID-19.
As he has consistently, Trump laid blame for the pandemic on China. He not only defended the actions taken by his administration, saying that millions would have died otherwise, but said that many Democratic governors had said that “I did a phenomenal job.”
Biden referenced Trump interviews recorded by journalist Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, saying the president has acknowledged that he knew in February that COVID-19 would be a problem but chose not to inform the American people. “He panicked or he just looked at the stock market,” Biden said, soon thereafter saying, “A lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker.”
Trump was quick to retort, “There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” suggesting that the former senator from Delaware had been a poor student in college.
Wallace noted the difference in the two men’s campaign styles, as Trump has held rallies attended by thousands of people, while Biden has campaigned more in online formats and events with smaller crowds.
“People want to hear what I have to say,” Trump said. “I’m doing a great job as president. So far, there has been no problem. We have tremendous crowds.”
When Biden said that Trump has “been totally irresponsible in the way he’s handled social distancing,” Trump replied, “If you could get the crowds, you’d do the same thing.”
Wallace’s shifting to the economy only brought further back-and-forth sniping.
“We built the greatest economy in history. We closed it down because of the China plague,” but a recovery is well under way, Trump said. “He [Biden] will closes it down again. He will ruin this country.”
In response, Biden said that millionaires and billionaires have done very well under Trump, but “You folks at home, how are you doing?”
Wallace asked Trump about reporting by The New York Times based on tax documents that said Trump paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017.
“I paid millions of dollars in income taxes,” Trump said.
“Show us your tax returns,” Biden responded.
Shortly thereafter, Biden said, “You’re the worst president America has ever had.”
Trump replied, “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years.”
If it had not already gotten personal, Biden referenced the military service of his late son Beau Biden to rebuke Trump for reported comments – which Trump has denied – calling members of the military “losers” and “suckers.” Of his son, Biden said, “He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes.”
When Trump questioned the financial dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, the former vice president said the accusations had been discredited. Biden indicated a willingness to discuss the business ethics of Trump’s children, then looked into the camera and said, “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about your family.”
Changing the topic to race relations still did not change the tone. Biden cited Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the August 2017 demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and how tear gas and other means were used more recently to clear protestors away so that Trump could visit a church near the White House in the midst of protests against the police killing of African Americans.
Trump defended his law-and-order comments in the wake of protests in such places as Portland, Oregon, and in cities that he said are run by Democratic mayors. “We believe in law and order, but you don’t,” Trump said.
“Violence as a response is never appropriate,” Biden said. Trump “doesn’t want to calm things down. Instead of talking about getting people together, he just pours gasoline on the fire.”
Trump said, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing. This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem,” prompting Biden to cite comments by the FBI director about the threat posed by white supremacists and militias.
After similarly fraught exchanges over climate change, Wallace’s final topic was election integrity and whether both candidates would accept the results.
Trump repeated his comments about the potential for the misuse of absentee ballots, warning, “This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen. … It’s a fraud. It’s a shame.”
Biden’s response was, “I will accept it and he will, too. If it’s not me, I’ll support the outcome.”