House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right — there shouldn’t have been a presidential debate.
"I do not think that the president of the United States has comported himself in a way that has any association with truth, evidence, data, and facts,” she said last month. President Trump would “probably act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency. He does that every day.”
On Tuesday night in Cleveland, the first of three presidential debates was no exception. Much like the Trump presidency, it was a national embarrassment.
It was an embarrassment before Trump again refused to condemn white supremacists, a travesty before a frustrated Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, addressed Trump and spoke for a weary nation: “Will you shut up, man?”
Biden, the former vice president, did what he could. But this was no place for civility, rules of order, detailed policy discussions, or, as Pelosi predicted, truth or facts — not with Trump at the other podium.
For 90 minutes, it was POTUS interruptus. Trump steamrolled overmatched Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who pretty much lost the reins as moderator shortly after introducing himself. Trump’s strategy was simple: Ignore Wallace’s directives to respect Biden’s speaking time, yammer well beyond his own allotted minutes, and lie like there’s no tomorrow.
Trump downplayed more than 205,000 COVID-19 deaths, making the baseless claim that there would have been more under Biden. He resorted to the same ugly anti-Chinese invective to mask his own lethal mismanagement of the federal virus response and dusted off his racist nickname for Senator Elizabeth Warren. He kept touting his own health care plan, which does not exist, over the Affordable Care Act, which he has spent his first term trying to destroy only because it’s the crowning achievement of the Obama presidency.
Because Trump’s stream of lies was as thick as his makeup, there was too little real-time fact-checking. (And Wallace, who largely let Trump control the debate, was useless.) When Biden offered facts and clarity, Trump just kept yapping over him. It was like watching a debate between a functioning adult and a tornado of feral cats.
Perhaps this was Trump’s attempt to look dominant over the man he calls “Sleepy Joe.” For months, Trump and his camp have been questioning Biden’s mental acuity, which is just a 2020 remix of Trump questioning Obama’s citizenship 12 years ago. Both have the same intended purpose — to delegitimize an opponent. The truth is irrelevant; it’s a distraction to keep voters asking a lot of silly questions instead of focusing on Trump’s failures.
For his part, Biden did fine — when he could get a word in edgewise. He tried to ignore Trump’s antics, though his patience was wearing thin. (One can only smile so much through a torrent of inciting gibberish.) He called Trump “a clown,” “a racist,” even “Putin’s puppy.” But, as usual, nothing anyone says about Trump is as deeply revealing as when the president tells on himself.
Wallace asked Trump whether he was “willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say that they need to stand down” instead of ramping up violence. Trump’s response: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” referring to the violent white extremist group as if he was delivering its marching orders. Then he pivoted to “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”
Even the Department of Homeland Security knows that this is a right-wing problem. It was yet another cold reminder that, in the horror story of the Trump presidency, the calls for violence are coming from inside the White House.
Whether debates hold any sway over voters is, well, debatable. If they did, Warren, who dazzled during the Democratic debates, would probably be the Democratic nominee. They can, however, offer an opportunity for candidates to discuss real issues germane to the American people. With the nation fraught from the pandemic, a flagging economy, and demands to end white supremacy and police violence, that is what viewers and voters deserved. Biden was prepared; Trump was not. This was just another over-the-top performance by the phony man who claimed to be a real billionaire but only played one on TV.
Only those who decided not to watch the debate were winners. With democracy on the precipice, America lost.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.