Critics did not mince words.
The long-anticipated first debate of the presidential election did not exactly get rave reviews.
As the New York Times pointed out, in our deeply polarized political times, Americans were in rare agreement that the debate was truly awful. It seems as if the only group pleased with the candidates' performance was the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys, who exulted in the president's order to "stand down and stand by," a statement widely seen as encouraging violence against the left.
Critics did not mince words. On CNN, Dana Bash declared the debate a "shit show" after CNN host Jake Tapper noted that "the American people lost tonight, because that was horrific."
"You just took the words out of my mouth," Bash said. "You used some high-minded language. I'm just gonna say it like it is. That was a shit show."
Donald Trump's failure to denounce the Proud Boys even drew criticism from Fox News.
"Donald Trump ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists," said Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. "I don't know if he didn't hear it, but he's gotta clarify that right away. ... Why the president didn't just knock it out of the park, I'm not sure."
Other commentators also expressed disbelief that Trump would so brazenly voice support for the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes as a hate group. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Carla Hall denounced Trump for vilifying antifa and encouraging violence by the far-right group.
"Trump answered that he would tell the Proud Boys — a violent group described by the Anti-Defamation League as 'misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration,' to 'stand back and stand by,'" Hall wrote. "(Huh?) Then he pivoted back to his diatribe on antifa: 'I'll tell you what. Someone has got to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.'"
By and large, commentators seemed to agree that Biden came out ahead.
Mother Jones journalist David Corn observed that the president's attacks on Biden stood in stark contrast to the former vice president's more respectable performance. "Trump was focused on smearing his opponent, and Biden was trying to connect with voters," Corn wrote. "Throughout the evening, Trump kept his sneering look fixed upon Biden, as he heaped abuse on Biden (and Biden's son, Hunter). Trump rarely addressed voters. It was as if he was only bent on creating content for Sean Hannity."
In their post-debate analysis, New York Times columnists mostly concurred that the debate would benefit the Biden campaign.
"I'm not going to say Joe Biden won, because he was far from as good as he should have been," wrote Jamelle Bouie. "But his campaign won, because the only thing anyone will talk about from this debate is the unhinged president who refused to condemn white supremacists before endorsing a right-wing street gang and attacking the integrity of the election."
Elizabeth Bruenig agreed. "Joe Biden. Trump is excellent at dominating a conversation and has a gift for wry insults Biden can't match," she wrote. "But that kind of belligerence takes energy, and these are two old men; by mid-debate, Trump seemed to wane, his answers weakening, response time lengthening.
"Biden, on the other hand, steadily cultivated his two points: That he has no patience for the red specter of leftism that Bernie Sanders dared cast over the primaries, and that he believes in American unity."
Initial post-debate polls show that viewers thought Biden did better than Trump. A CNN poll showed six in 10 viewers thought Biden won. CBS's Kabir Khanna found that 42% of debate watchers said they thought worse of Trump after the debate, tweeting: "Slightly more watchers say debate made them think better of Biden (38%) than worse of him (32%): nets to +6. When it comes to Trump, more watchers say it made them think worse (42%) than better of him (24%): nets to -18."
As Vox reported, Republican pollster Frank Luntz asked a focus group to share its reactions to the debate. A few words that came to mind when asked about Trump were "horrid," "chaotic," "unpolished," and "crackhead." Of the 15 undecided voters in the group, four flipped to Biden, while two leaned toward Trump.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.