Donald Trump never liked the nickname. Back when he was a New Yorker and a newly minted Republican and generally considered a political oddity, Jeb Bush branded him on live television. According to the former Florida governor, Trump was “the chaos candidate.”
It fit then, and it still fits now: The first Trump vs. Biden debate marked the return of the chaos candidacy.
Though no one who knew him well expected Trump to change because of a trifling factor such as living in the White House for nearly four years, the incumbent president was in classic form Tuesday night. For 98 minutes, he belittled and bullied and berated both his opponent and the moderator -- so much so that he made the debate painful to watch. But what was roundly condemned may have been the plan.
Trump trails former vice president Joe Biden in the RealClearPolitics national polling average by 6.1 percentage points. Figuring he needed a strong showing to close the gap, the campaign studied every Biden debate since 1972. The strategy they came up with entailed having Trump rely on his improv ability rather than employ a structured game plan.
There were just a handful of goals for Trump, a source familiar with the debate prep told RCP:
Knock Biden off his talking points by answering questions from moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News and then posing another one to his opponent. Force him to own up to the less popular parts of his own record. Push the centrist Democrat to own the policy agenda of those on his left flank.
“The more Joe stutters and stumbles and makes mistakes and says things that just don't resonate or make sense,” the source told RCP the day before the debate, “the more we're winning.”
If that approach wasn’t already apparent, it became obvious within the first few minutes when a discussion about the Supreme Court turned into a question about Obamacare. Trump said that a Biden administration would kick 180 million Americans off of their private health insurance and open the door to “socialized medicine.” Biden balked.
"That is simply a lie," he said.
"Your party wants to go socialist medicine and socialist health care," Trump interrupted.
"The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party," Biden insisted.
"And they’re going to dominate you, Joe. You know that," Trump shot back.
It was a redux of what Republicans have long argued, namely that Biden’s moderation is a sham and that the former vice president is little more than a Trojan horse for more progressive ideologies. At one point, after Trump accused Biden of embracing “socialized medicine” and signing off on “the manifesto” of a former Democratic rival, an incredulous Biden replied, “I’m not going to listen to him. The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders.”
This was a rare denunciation at a moment when Democrats have tried to bind up the partisan wounds of a divisive primary. Trump saw it as an opening to take advantage, declaring that Biden had “just lost the left.” Two minutes later, both men were shouting that the other was the real “liar.”
Much of the debate was wasted with this kind of jawboning, and little policy was actually discussed in detail. But as Trump was trying to peg Biden as a radical, he only succeeded in chasing the Democrat to the center. The Green New Deal? Biden said he didn’t support it. Rioting in the streets? Biden condemned violence. Defunding the police? Biden said he would increase funding. Just as Republicans struggled to define Biden over the summer, Trump was all over the place throughout the night. His punches didn’t land as hard as they did four years ago, and his new opponent was not as easily demonized as Hillary Clinton. But the president never stopped interrupting, which at some point became the issue itself.
Trump said the only reason that Biden was the nominee was because he got “very lucky” (the Democrat sarcastically agreed). He said that Biden was a bad negotiator and that “China ate your lunch.” He said that after nearly five decades in government Biden had “done nothing.”
Trump did not limit his attacks to Biden. Early in the night he began to bristle at questions from Chris Wallace, complaining that “I guess I’m debating you.” From then on, the president regularly disregarded the moderator. He interrupted and demanded more time to answer questions and went his own way. Wallace became so exasperated at one point that he sarcastically offered to switch seats with Trump.
While the president seemed to shred the debate rulebook, he was not always on offense. He was asked about a report in the New York Times that he only paid $750 in federal income taxes. Is that true? Trump insisted that it wasn’t and said he had actually paid several million dollars. “Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected. Trump, as he has for the past four years, said that he couldn’t release the documents until an IRS audit was finished. And besides, the president continued, he was just trying to get the best deal possible by obeying the rules established under the Obama administration.
“I don’t want to pay taxes,” Trump admitted. “Before I came here, I was a private developer, I was a private businessperson. Like every other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws. ... He passed a bill that gave us all these privileges for depreciation and for tax credits.”
This would become a theme throughout the night. Although he’s the incumbent U.S. president, Donald Trump continued to run as an insurgent. Pushed to play defense on a topic, he would argue instead that if Biden were president a bad situation would only be worse. For instance, as the death toll from coronavirus exceeds 200,000, Trump insisted the number would have been much higher if he hadn’t closed the country to Asia and Europe.
“If we would’ve listened to you, the country would have been left wide open, millions of people would have died, not 200,000,” Trump told Biden before adding, “I’ll tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job that we did. You don’t have it in your blood. You could’ve never done that, Joe.”
Aside from passing references to ventilators and therapeutics and vaccines, neither candidate discussed the pandemic in detail. They did, however, make things personal.
Trump tried repeatedly to rattle Biden usually with interruptions. Biden responded by complaining that it was “hard to get any word in with this clown.” At another point, after the president kept talking over his answer about the Supreme Court, he asked, “Will you shut up, man?”
This freewheeling approach was not without risks. Asked twice by Wallace if he would condemn white supremacists and tell militias to stand down during moments of urban unrest, Trump said “sure” twice. He told the moderator to “give me a name,” asking, “Who do you want me to condemn?” Biden suggested “the Proud Boys,” a self-described alt-right chauvinist organization.
“Okay, Proud Boys -- stand back and stand by,” the president responded. “But I'll tell you what -- somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left wing.”
In short order, the group was trumpeting what it saw as an endorsement. Critics took this, specifically the words “stand by,” as a sign that the president was refusing to condemn white supremacists.
The subsequent controversy went viral on social media, an episode that the Trump campaign certainly did not want or expect. Rather, for months Republicans had placed their hopes on a rhetorical slugfest where the president could outmatch his opponent. One of their top priorities? Forcing Biden to discuss his son Hunter. Trump saw his opportunity when Biden referenced the military career of his son.
"He got the Bronze Star. He got the Conspicuous Service Medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes," Biden said.
Trump interrupted to ask if he was talking about Hunter. Biden said no, he was talking about Beau.
"I don't know Beau. I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use," Trump continued.
Biden said that wasn’t true. Trump said that it was.
"Once you became vice president, he made a fortune in Ukraine and China and Moscow and various other places. And he didn't have a job," Trump shot back.
"That is simply not true. My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's fixed it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of him," Biden concluded.
Republicans have been hammering for months on ties between Hunter Biden and foreign nationals, arguing that sweetheart deals and plum business opportunities overseas were only the result of his last name and willingness to trade access to his father for profit. Trump tried to do the same on stage but Biden wasn’t rattled.
The debate continued for several more minutes. More barbs and more personal attacks followed. Both candidates regularly interrupted, and they kept doing so even as Wallace tried to bring the night to an end. “We are going to have to leave it there,” the moderator said, even as Trump kept speaking. “It has been an interesting hour and a half.”
More than anything, the 98 minutes marked the return of Trump as the chaos candidate.