Jacques: A review of the first presidential debate (if we can call it that)

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Well, that was uncomfortable. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the first high-profile match between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. 

But I guess I had hoped it would be more eye-opening than the juvenile sparring contest we witnessed. 

Throughout the 90-plus minute debate, Fox News host Chris Wallace had a tough time corralling the candidates as they talked over each other, ignored time limits and made nonstop jabs at one another. 

It made the exchanges painful to watch. That’s too bad, given the topics were of great importance to the American people, from COVID-19 and health care to the Supreme Court to the economy. 

It was nearly impossible to parse any policy from the pandemonium. 

“It was the worst presidential debate that I’ve ever seen,” says Mario Morrow, Detroit political consultant.  

He says Trump “went way over the top,” but that the debate didn’t “seal the deal” for Biden, either. 

Trump proved again that he is his own worst enemy. Condemning white supremacy — and violent groups on all sides of the political spectrum — should have been an easy task. Yet the president waffled on his answer, leaving viewers unsure where he actually stands. 

More: Jacques: Words really do matter, Mr. President

And by telling the far-right extremist group Proud Boys (a group brought up by Biden) to “stand back and stand by,” he probably didn’t do much to quell concerns among moderate Republicans, particularly the white suburban women he’s struggled to woo this time around. These women may be conservative, but they aren’t racist and don’t want to be associated with racism of any kind. 

And Trump’s comments will serve as further motivation for Black and brown voters to cast their vote against him. 

“The real question is whether the long-term demographic woes facing the Republican Party make it impossible for Trump to win,” says GOP strategist Dennis Lennox.

Yet Lennox says Biden struggled on questions of criminal justice reform and law and order — issues that suburban voters in Metro Detroit are paying attention to this election year, as protests and riots over race have erupted across the U.S. And Trump needs these voters to turn out. 

A few takeaways: 

►Everyone is used to Trump playing attack dog and bully. But Biden missed an opportunity to stay on message about civility and how he’d offer a different kind of leadership. That’s been a central element to his campaign. While Trump did his best to rattle Biden and get on his nerves, it didn’t excuse some of Biden’s comebacks to Trump, including: “Everyone knows he’s a liar"; "You’re the worst president America has ever had”; “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.”

►Trump overplayed his hand with his aggressiveness. By constantly talking over Biden and interrupting him — in addition to Wallace, the moderator — it was hard to really hear what Trump was saying. And that’s too bad, as some of his points were worth hearing, such as those related to COVID shutdowns in states like Michigan and how they are hurting the economy. 

►Biden may not have come across as nice, but he did do better than some were predicting as far as not getting flustered and going off message. He was able to make quick comebacks to most of the questions, and Trump’s attacks — when he could get a word in. 

And if Trump would have just let Biden talk, the former vice president would have had more opportunity to ramble and potentially stumble. He never got the chance. 

“Trump’s ‘Trumpism’ backfired on him,” Morrow says. 

►Trump’s biggest accomplishment in his first term was the state of the economy, before COVID-19 turned everything upside down. He missed a chance to focus more specifically on what the next four years would look like under his leadership, and what he would do to rebuild the economy. 

Regardless of the debate, most Americans have already made up their minds about which candidate will get their vote.

As Lennox says: “There may be soft Trump or soft Biden voters but truly undecided voters may be mythical. Are you really going to vote if you haven’t made your mind up by now?

So this debate probably didn’t change many minds. But I doubt it did much to make anyone more enthusiastic about casting their vote. 

“This has been and remains a turnout election,” Lennox says. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques