After a chaotic night in Cleveland, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) issued a surprise statement on Wednesday. It would, it said, soon announce “additional structure … to the format of the remaining debates, to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues”.
The CPD said it was grateful to Chris Wallace for his “professionalism and skill” as moderator of the first debate, but nodded to criticism of the Fox News anchor’s handling of Donald Trump’s aggressive and abusive behaviour when it said it would provide “additional tools to maintain order”.
Thanks to Trump, the debate in Cleveland is sure to live on in infamy. The president interrupted or ignored Wallace, persistently hectored Biden, attacking his family, and even refused to disavow white supremacists, a low point of what pundits called a “dumpster fire”, a “train wreck” and a “shitshow”.
There are two presidential debates to go. As the dust settled from the first, Biden widely reckoned to have come out stronger, many wondered if Trump would now be the one to duck out – or if Biden should.
The Biden campaign rejected that idea outright.
“Joe Biden’s never going to refuse to talk to the American people,” the California senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, told CNN.
As it happens, the next campaign debate, in Salt Lake City on 7 October, will be between Harris and Vice-President Mike Pence. A tough prosecutor against a smooth operator, it should present a fascinating, even comfortingly familiar spectacle, of point and counter point.
Trump v Biden round two will follow, scheduled for 15 October in Miami, a week before a final meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.
Biden, Harris said, would take “any opportunity that he can to speak directly to American families and speak about the issues, speak the truth, and address the facts of where we are now, but also address the hopes and dreams of the American families and where we could be and Joe’s got a plan for dealing with those hopes and aspirations as well”.
As luck would have it – for Biden and Harris, at least – pending CPD changes the Miami debate will see the candidates answer questions from the audience.
On Tuesday Brian Klaas, associate professor in global politics at University College London and a Washington Post columnist, tweeted that he understood “those who say ‘cancel the debates’ now”, but also pointed out that the second debate “is a town hall format”.
“Biden is at his best – especially with empathy and compassion – when he’s talking to individual voters,” Klaas wrote. “Trump, by contrast, doesn’t possess those capabilities, and that will show.”
Among discussion of what little actual debate was possible in Cleveland, the former Republican strategist and Lincoln Project member Rick Wilson pointed to Biden’s handling of questions about the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the things I think Biden did very, very well on was indicting Trump on the Covid deaths,” Wilson said on his New Abnormal podcast. “He went right at it. He named it, he went chapter and verse on it.”
Wilson added: “Trump’s reaction was, ‘I got the respirators, you’d never get respirators.’ It was such a pathetic and sloppy defense of his mishandling of this, and I think it was important for Biden to really hit that and hammer it home.”
On rightwing media, Trump attracted predictable praise. On Fox News, the pundit Dan Bongino insisted, “Trump’s strategy tonight was executed brilliantly” and added: “Trump is an apex predator. He’s the lion king. Trump went out there tonight and did what Trump does. He’s the shark in the ocean and he acted like it. He lost no one from his base, no one.”
But Trump is behind in national and swing state polls and needs to reach beyond his base. Evidence his behaviour in Cleveland did not do so was freely to be found.
The conservative focus group guru Frank Luntz brought together independent or undecided voters for a session streamed on YouTube. Individuals described Trump as “horrid”, “chaotic”, “unpolished”, “puzzling”, “un-American”, “unhinged”, “forceful”, “unhinged”, “arrogant” and a “bully”.
One voter, Ruthie from Pennsylvania, a vital swing state, became an instant internet star. She had been undecided, she said, but would now vote for Biden – who she had watched trying to “win an argument with a crackhead”.