Opinion: Trump misses his chance to make case for reelection at debate


The first presidential debate of 2020 was 'a huge missed opportunity for Donald Trump.'

Leading up to Tuesday night's first presidential debate, most of the analysis centered around historical precedent.

Many analysts, myself included, looked to past debates, like the 1980 Carter-Reagan faceoff, to examine how the first Biden-Trump debate might impact the race.

Also discussed in television segments and newspaper articles during the lead-up to Tuesday's debate was the worst day of my tenure as President Barack Obama's campaign manager and probably my political career: October 3, 2012, the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Within the first 8 minutes of the debate, we knew we had lost.  

Yet nothing, nothing could have prepared us for the disgraceful spectacle Donald Trump put on Tuesday night. The debate, in the words of CNN anchor Dana Bash, was "a sh*t show."

Before getting into any political analysis, it is important to recognize that what we as a country saw Tuesday was just the latest example of just how far the cancer that is the Trump presidency has spread across the American body politic. 

And while we can become numb to it, it is always worth remembering that for four years, Trump, empowered by a feckless, morally bankrupt Republican Party, has blatantly and brazenly broken the law, broken our political system, broken the sacred trust with the American people, and fundamentally tried to break our democracy itself. 

Now, with all of that being said, what are the political ramifications of Tuesday night? First, it is worth remembering that, most likely, a very small percentage of the millions of viewers who watched were actually persuadable voters. In a recent Monmouth Poll, 74% of registered voters said they would watch the debates, but only 3% said it was very likely they would hear something that would change their mind.

But for those 3%, Trump did nothing to make his case — and for an incumbent who has trailed in national and battleground polls for months, whose job approval sags under the weight of a pandemic and economic collapse, this was a huge missed opportunity. 

Rather than articulating a vision for what a second term might be, Trump launched a barrage of lies and personal insults, went on bizarre tangents unrelated to the questions he was asked, repeatedly interrupted the moderator and former Vice President Joe Biden, and threw infantile temper tantrums you wouldn't accept from a toddler, let alone the president of the United States in a nationally televised presidential debate. 

When Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacists, a layup question by any decent person's standards, he couldn't and he didn't. In front of 71 million Americans.  

It is hard to predict what the fallout will be, because an American presidential debate audience had never been exposed to such disgusting behavior before. And while partisanship often rules the day, for that tiny sliver of persuadable voters, what they saw on Tuesday was of no comfort.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, did everything he needed to do. The American people long ago decided they wanted to fire Donald Trump — which is why his approval rating never reached 50%.

But they needed to be confident in hiring Joe Biden. His debate performance, at least on snap reaction, seems to have cleared that bar for voters.

Tuesday night's debate will go down as another sad chapter in the American story under Donald Trump. Hopefully, on January 20, 2021, we can start a new one.

Jim Messina is CEO of The Messina Group and chief strategist for American Bridge 21st Century. He was formerly White House deputy chief of staff under President Obama, and campaign manager for the president's 2012 reelection campaign.