I had initially thought of Tuesday night’s first presidential debate as the equivalent of a heavyweight boxing match, something like the classic fights between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s.
Instead, it was less a “thrilla in Manila” or a “rumble in the jungle” and more like a phony professional wrestling match. Let’s take that analogy one step lower and call it mud wrestling.
The interruptions, first by President Trump and then by former Vice President Joe Biden, were the antithesis of civility. In this, Mr. Biden displayed the worst behavior, calling the president a “liar,” a “clown” and a “racist.” At one point Mr. Biden said, “will you shut-up, man?” Classy.
Having done a considerable number of debates myself over many years, including with former Sens. and presidential candidates George McGovern and Birch Bayh and with my good friend, Bob Beckel, who managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign against Ronald Reagan, a little respect and deference to one’s opponent goes a long way toward establishing credibility with an audience and gaining a respectful hearing for one’s policies.
This was more a battle of personalities and less a real debate about substantive issues and political philosophy. The president likely helped Mr. Biden when he interrupted, keeping him from possibly committing some of his famous gaffes. He did have a few of those, but not as many as people might have thought, allowing him to cross the bar of low expectations. In a way, by not losing, Mr. Biden lived to fight another day, assuming he engages in the two remaining debates.
Mr. Trump’s advantages included his correct claim to have the power to name federal judges, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, “because I won” the election. That is what President Obama said to Republicans. Both are right.
One of Mr. Biden’s tactics was to look into the camera and address “the American people.” Mr. Trump mostly looked at Mr. Biden, or at moderator Chris Wallace, who at times appeared like a frustrated referee in one of those wrestling matches when opponents refuse to stop punching each other.
Lost in it all was a clearer distinction between the policies of the two men. Seeking to defend himself against Mr. Trump’s claim that Sen. Bernie Sanders and the “far-left” wing of the party are in control, Mr. Biden claimed he is the Democratic Party. In light of his rush to embrace the left’s agenda, that seems to lack credibility.
In the end these debates should focus on their ideologies. Mr. Biden, with his promise to raise taxes, eliminate fossil fuels and create “100 million green jobs,” his flips on federal funding of abortions and other issues (which did not come up in this debate, but should in the remaining two), reinforced his position, despite his denials, that he is a big government liberal.
By contrast, Mr. Trump is for empowering individuals by loosening government’s grip and the escalating costs of regulations and programs created in Washington where one size is imposed on everyone, even when half the country disagrees.
It will be understandable to his supporters that Mr. Trump felt the need to “fact-check” Mr. Biden because he believes the media and establishment are doing everything they can to undermine him and have since he announced his candidacy.
Still, there is a way to do that without looking like a person whose parents failed to teach you manners. Mr. Biden is without excuse for calling the president names.
With polls showing most voters have already made up their minds on who will get their vote, the shrinking number of undecideds remains a key component in the remaining four-plus weeks of the campaign.
In boxing, one can sometimes reach a draw in which both sides have fought valiantly and courageously. Not so much in wrestling and not at all when things descend into the mud.
• Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires, Superpowers and the United States” (HarperCollins/Zondervan, January 2020).