The 74-year-old president and the 77-year-old former vice president are similar in age, and they share a mutual dislike. But they differ starkly in style and substance. All of that was evident from the outset on the Cleveland stage.
Here are key early takeaways from the first of three scheduled presidential debates before Election Day on Nov. 3.
Trump has been itching to attack Biden for months, and he wasted no time going on offense. He repeatedly interrupted Biden mid-sentence, sometimes in intensely personal ways.
“There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump said of Biden. “47 years you’ve done nothing.”
While Trump played into his reputation as a bully, it may have been effective at breaking up the worst of Biden’s attacks — simply by talking over them.
Trump aides believed before the debate that Biden would be unable to withstand the withering offensive on style and substance from Trump, but Biden came with a few retorts of his own, calling Trump a “clown” and mocking Trump’s style by asking, “Will you shut up, man?”
His supporters may have been cheered by Trump’s frontal nature. Whether undecided voters, who watched the debate to try to learn about the two candidates, were impressed is another matter.
Trump can’t escape the virus
Trump has wanted the election to be about anything but the coronavirus pandemic, but he couldn’t outrun reality on the debate stage.
“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden told the president, referring to Trump’s months of downplaying COVID-19 while he said privately he understood how deadly it is.
But Trump didn’t take it quietly. He proceeded to blitz Biden with a mix of self-defense and counter-offensives. 200,000 dead? Biden’s death toll would have been “millions,” Trump said. A rocky economy? Biden would’ve been worse. Biden wouldn’t have manufactured enough masks or ventilators.
The kicker: “There will be a vaccine very soon.”
Biden fell back on his bottom line: “A lot of people died, and a lot more are going to unless he gets a lot smarter.”
For voters still undecided about who’d better handle the pandemic, the exchange may not have offered them anything new.
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Question about court, answer about health care
Trump defended his decision to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just weeks before Election Day, saying “elections have consequences.”
Biden said he was “not opposed to the justice,” but said the “American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is.”
But rather than litigate Republicans’ 2016 blocking of Merrick Garland to the high court, Biden quickly pivoted to the issues that will potentially come before the court: healthcare and abortion. It’s an effort by the Democrat to refocus the all-but-certain confirmation fight for Trump’s third justice to the Supreme Court into an assault on Trump and his record.
Biden said Barrett, who would be the sixth justice on the nine-member court to be appointed by a Republican, would endanger the Affordable Care Act and tens of millions of Americans with preexisting conditions, and would imperil legalized abortion. It was a reframing of the political debate to terms far more favorable to the Democrat, and one Trump played into. Trump said of the conservative Barrett, “You don’t know her view on Roe vs. Wade” and he defended his efforts to try to chip away at the popular Obama-era health law.
Biden has tried to press Democrats to use the court confirmation fight as a rallying cry against Trump, and the debate discussion largely played out on his turf.
Wallace tries to moderate a mud fight
Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News held his ground Tuesday after saying beforehand that it was not his job to fact-check the candidates, especially Trump, in real time.
But Wallace struggled to stop Trump from interrupting and at times seemed to lose control of the debate.
“Mr. President, as the moderator, we are going to talk about COVID in the next segment,” Wallace said.
Soon after: “I’m the moderator, and I’d like you to let me ask my question.”
Minutes later: “I have to give you roughly equal time. Please let the vice president talk.”
And when Wallace noted that Trump hasn’t come up with his health care plan in nearly four years, Trump turned the question back on Wallace.
“First of all, I’m debating you and not him. That’s okay. I’m not surprised.”
Wallace said he wanted to be “invisible.”
Well, that was impossible.
Debates don’t matter? Think again
There was plenty of talk heading into Tuesday that debates don’t matter. Indeed, this has been a remarkably stable race through months of seismic headlines: Biden has maintained a lead, with Trump holding his enthusiastic base to remain within striking distance.
But presidential elections often turn on the margins, and Tuesday marked many firsts for some voters who could prove decisive in battleground states.
It was the first time Biden has had Trump go after his son Hunter Biden to his face, the first time Biden’s had to respond to Trump casting him as a do-nothing career politician, the first time the two men could mix it up over the 2010 health care law.
Likewise, it was the first time Trump had to respond to Biden casting his presidency as a divisive failure on everything from the pandemic to race relations. Biden also used the opportunity to push back at some of Trump’s caricatures that he’s a puppet of the left-wing. Instead, Biden pitched himself as the center-left politician he’s been for most of his career.
Maybe the back-and-forth won’t sway as many voters as in 1980, when challenger Ronald Reagan used the debate stage to turn a seemingly competitive race with President Jimmy Carter into a blowout.
But it also could be a 1960 redux. That year, Sen. John Kennedy excelled in the new television debate format, and he went on to win the decisive states, Illinois and Texas, by fewer than 60,000 votes combined. And of course, it’s worth remembering 2016, when Trump lost the national popular vote but carried Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by fewer than 100,000 votes combined to win the Electoral College anyway. Debates don’t have to move millions to matter.