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Debate coach: Why this debate went terribly wrong

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CNN's Daniel Dale fact-checks key moments from the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. See more CNN Facts First fact checks here.

Posted: Sep 30, 2020 12:40 PM
Updated: Sep 30, 2020 12:40 PM

That was the worst debate in the history of presidential debating. And I'm including primary debates. Nothing else comes close.

I decided to grade this debate on who was most responsible for the race to the bottom -- who was most responsible for failing the American public. Moderator Chris Wallace, President Donald Trump and Joe Biden were bad, but they don't share equal responsibility. I'm a debate coach. I've watched many hundreds of terrible debates. I know where to cast blame.

Let's begin -- in order of most egregious to least.

F

Chris Wallace

I was, rightfully, it turned out, worried about the moderator. Unfortunately, Wallace decided to be invisible in his primary job here, as leader of a worthwhile debate. He was much stronger four years ago, when he was able to keep Trump within reason. Wallace's performance will be remembered for his not standing up to Trump and laying down the law early on, and then -- after it was too late -- shouting at the current President. Like a bad parent, he was absent when needed and overbearing when it was too late.

The notion of facilitating an "open discussion" played right into hands of the biggest liar and interrupter on stage. Debates with Trump simply aren't like anything else. The idea behind being "invisible" is that a moderator shouldn't get in the way of a good debate. Wallace, by losing control of the candidates, caused the chaos.

And when did Wallace think that allowing Trump to ask Biden questions, and then making Biden answer -- by failing to stop Trump and then at one point even prompting Biden to somehow answer Trump's question -- was a proper approach? It demonstrated an amazing lack of fairness, intended or not.

F

Donald Trump

There are degrees of interruptions. Some are quick, short and annoying. Others are used as a defense against someone who just lied about you. Then there are long, off-topic, rambling and yell-at-your-television maddening interruptions. Trump's were this last kind. His torrent of bombastic babbling over both Biden and Wallace never let up. Plus, the number of falsehoods, questionable statements, claims without evidence and generally made-up junk simply put this President in a league of his own. (Here's an unlovely breakdown by CNN's fact-checkers.)

C

Joe Biden

Biden needed to show more restraint in interrupting both Trump and Wallace. Sure, interrupting is required sometimes, like when a family member is attacked rhetorically. Unfortunately, Biden began the whole process of interrupting in this debate, drawing first blood. In doing so, and continuing throughout the debate, Biden might have turned off possible voters, who were left thinking that both candidates are insufferable.

Still and all, Biden wasn't nearly as hideous in the quantity of rage-inducing transgressions. He doesn't share equal blame. Look at the series of primaries he just finished or the one-on-one debate against Bernie Sanders. Compare those debates with last night's debate. If you see a difference, then the fault can't be with Biden.

And one more grade: an F, and F stands for Frank Fahrenkopf -- and the Commission on Presidential Debates, of which he is co-chair.

Part of what debate coaches do is to teach people how to judge and moderate debates. Fahrenkopf's instructions on this, elucidated in this interview with CNN's Brian Stelter, run counter to anything I've ever taught or heard. The directions to the moderators he described ("if one of these candidates says something on the stage Tuesday, it's the role of the other person in the debate to be the one to raise that") led to the mess -- which could have been easily predicted by anyone with a functioning TV or computer screen who has watched our President on it over the past 3½ years.

Wallace, Fahrenkopf pronounced, was just there as a "facilitator" meant to "get the candidates to debate, talk to each other about their positions." In the real world of debating, that's an open invitation to whoever wants to disrupt the debate the most. With his light touch on the rules rudder, Fahrenkopf (and his commission) are at least partly to blame for putting us through this rocky ride.

Could you understand what was going on? I doubt it. If you missed the debate and try to read the transcript, the only word you'll find consistently is "crosstalk."

Final thoughts:

I have no idea who won this debate. But I do know we're all worse off because of it. There are too many life-changing issues for Americans that ought to have been discussed (like, for example, a substantive exploration of the purported topics of this debate, which fell away or got systematically scrambled in the cacophony of chatter the President directed at his frustrated adversary).

It's a shame none of that conversation happened. The election of the United States president is serious business. It was not treated that way last night. There were no winners in that nonsense. Only losers. Us. We learned nothing new.

Finally, please don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Debates have been around for thousands of years, and just because we have one candidate (Trump) who won't even come close to playing by the rules, that doesn't mean presidential debates aren't still valuable. Like most things, they have to survive this presidency.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 295295

Reported Deaths: 6724
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19672230
Hinds18799386
Harrison16710278
Rankin12685264
Jackson12592226
Lee9687160
Madison9457199
Jones7962146
Forrest7208136
Lauderdale6833226
Lowndes6022137
Lamar588080
Lafayette5733113
Washington5218130
Bolivar4609123
Oktibbeha441393
Panola430394
Pearl River4167130
Warren4129114
Pontotoc408869
Marshall403192
Monroe3989126
Union395374
Neshoba3807168
Lincoln3541102
Hancock347374
Leflore3375118
Sunflower318386
Tate302474
Pike300195
Scott293870
Alcorn291861
Itawamba289975
Yazoo289262
Tippah278765
Copiah277857
Coahoma277568
Simpson274878
Prentiss269758
Wayne253841
Marion252678
Leake252471
Covington248879
Grenada247377
Adams234377
George231745
Newton229652
Winston221675
Jasper213445
Tishomingo212365
Attala206569
Chickasaw201151
Holmes182270
Clay179150
Stone172429
Tallahatchie170539
Clarke169371
Calhoun157828
Smith152731
Yalobusha144836
Greene127633
Walthall124140
Noxubee122829
Montgomery122438
Perry121634
Lawrence120321
Carroll118225
Amite111533
Webster110630
Jefferson Davis101731
Tunica99023
Claiborne98429
Benton93324
Humphreys92827
Kemper90223
Quitman77114
Franklin76119
Choctaw69516
Jefferson62527
Wilkinson62426
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 493769

Reported Deaths: 9931
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson710731374
Mobile36139727
Madison32425455
Tuscaloosa24184410
Montgomery22586500
Shelby21968215
Baldwin19758283
Lee14967153
Morgan13667251
Calhoun13300286
Etowah13184319
Marshall11262209
Houston10104261
Elmore9385185
Limestone9363134
Cullman8897181
St. Clair8827223
Lauderdale8607211
DeKalb8459175
Talladega7523163
Walker6524255
Jackson6495102
Autauga627091
Blount6102127
Colbert6004118
Coffee5249102
Dale4642107
Russell404930
Franklin399177
Covington3960106
Chilton3876100
Escambia377672
Tallapoosa3588142
Clarke343650
Chambers3413110
Dallas3403141
Pike293472
Lawrence283484
Marion281995
Winston246867
Bibb245060
Geneva239970
Marengo236455
Pickens224654
Barbour211651
Hale210568
Fayette200756
Butler196866
Henry182441
Cherokee177038
Monroe166139
Randolph163740
Washington156535
Crenshaw144854
Clay144454
Macon142043
Cleburne137839
Lamar132833
Lowndes131151
Wilcox121825
Bullock116936
Conecuh106724
Perry105627
Sumter98531
Coosa88923
Greene88232
Choctaw55123
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