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What are pundits saying after Tuesday’s presidential debate?

In the wake of the performance, pundits from across the media spectrum have contributed their opinions on key takeaways from the evening

President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Julio Cortez, Associated Press

With the first general election debate of the 2020 election cycle now in our rearview mirrors, Americans now have a chance to reflect on the contest last night and the claims each candidate made. Undeniably a contentious evening, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred on issues ranging from the Supreme Court to the coronavirus pandemic to the integrity of the upcoming election.

In the wake of the performance, pundits from across the media spectrum have contributed their opinions on key takeaways from the evening.

CNN Business’ Brian Stelter compared moderator Chris Wallace to “a crossing guard at an impossibly clogged intersection who tried to give direction but was powerless to enforce the rules.”

“‘If you want to switch seats,’ (Wallace) said to President Trump at the 65 minute mark of Tuesday night’s debate, ‘we can do that.’

“But the metaphorical switch happened in the first five minutes,” Stelter wrote. “Trump took control by interrupting and interjecting while Joe Biden tried to answer questions. Wallace belatedly tried to exert control, but rarely if ever succeeded. So Trump basically moderated the debate — and Biden took full advantage of his behavior and used it as an argument to end Trump’s presidency.”

National Review’s David L. Bahnsen agreed that Trump was the primary source of chaos, expressing frustration that the president “had multiple opportunities to be substantively tough, and neglected to do so.”

“I doubt any honest person’s major, primary takeaway from last night was something positive or negative about Biden,” he wrote.

“No, everyone’s major takeaway was about Trump. As always. And while the reality of 2016 looms over all of us afraid to be wrong yet again in our predictive prowess, it feels like the wheels are falling off the bus. I strongly suspect there are very few people who went into the debate gung-ho for Trump who decided after his performance to not vote for him, but I am even more confident that the undecideds ... needed to give Trump a shot at winning this, were not remotely moved toward Team Trump last night.”

Jonathan Allen, writing for NBC News, marveled that Trump couldn’t take advantage of Biden’s debating weaknesses, calling the president a “candidate who knows he is losing and has no idea how to fix the problem.”

“The irony is that Biden was deeply vulnerable: after decades of experience at the highest levels, he’s still not a strong debater,” Allen wrote. “He was noticeably apprehensive; he lacked the motivation and speed to brawl on stage; and he still didn’t have good answers for a host of questions about his record and platform.

“But Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t stay focused on Biden’s actual positions. Instead, he ran against a dark caricature of the former vice president while the real version was standing right there smiling.”

Politico’s Ryan Lizza thinks Trump intentionally “torched” the debate to distract from his lack of a clear message this election cycle, arguing that Joe Biden is a different animal than Hillary Clinton.

“In 2016, Trump had a clear and concise line of attack against Hillary Clinton: She was a corrupt member of the Washington establishment and he was going to send her to jail if he became president,” Lizza wrote. “He discussed the alleged perfidy of her deleting personal emails with impressive discipline. But Biden has proven to be a more elusive target. Sometimes he is ‘Sleepy Joe.’ Other times he’s a dangerous radical. At this point in the campaign in 2016, Clinton had become a despised figure among Trump’s hardcore supporters. Those supporters in 2020 can’t seem to muster the same amount of antipathy for the former vice president.”

The Federalist’s David Marcus defended the chaos, worrying that any changes to rules or format would only “open up more time for the same prepackaged answers to questions that we already see on TV ads.”

“Yeah, it was a little nasty, but so what? This isn’t middle school debate club,” he wrote. “The important thing isn’t actually that everyone comport themselves in a civil manner. The important thing is who should be the next president.

“My only big quibble with Tuesday night’s big fight was moderator Chris Wallace’s micromanaging. Both President Trump and Joe Biden were game to scrap. Once that was clear, Wallace should have let them just have at it. A good boxing referee knows when to step in and more importantly when not to. We should see more direct exchanges between Trump and Biden, not fewer.”

Another big moment from the debate was the confusion surrounding whether Trump adequately denounced white supremacists; Carla Hall, writing for the Los Angeles Times, couldn’t understand why the president pivoted.

“What does he lose by disavowing the white supremacists we know have become more public and outspoken in the last four years and have shown up at various protests to stir up mayhem?” she wrote.

“Whose votes does he lose? The white supremacists’? Even Trump can’t really care about them, can he? I doubt it.

“This was the thin-skinned, nasty Trump on display who is annoyed that he got criticized several years ago for not denouncing the white racists who showed up in Charlottesville.”

Despite the controversy, Fox News’ Liz Peek insisted Trump isn’t racist, instead lamenting that the president didn’t tout his administration’s actions on racial issues.

“Trump should have listed the numerous measures adopted by his administration that have benefitted African Americans, such as passing criminal justice reform, establishing permanent funding for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and creating a hot jobs market that drove Black unemployment to record lows,” Peek wrote.

“He could have also talked about his efforts to increase school choice, which most Black families favor, or noted that his support of cops is especially important to minority neighborhoods, which have borne the brunt of this summer’s riots.”

Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson argued that the spectacle actually reflected on the American people, urging us all to “demand better and expect more.”

“Presidents, politicians and other elected officials bear immense responsibility for setting the tone and tenor for the conversations in the country,” he wrote. “But they don’t own those conversations — the American people do. To blame a president for the lack of civility, compassion, integrity or respect in the country absolves citizens of their responsibility. This didn’t start in 2016, nor will end with a different occupant in the White House. This is a ‘we the people’ issue.”