President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden had their first presidential debate last night — a chaotic 90 minutes that resulted in the candidates and moderator Chris Wallace talking over each other much of the time. GBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with WBZ Political Analyst Jon Keller about what happened. The transcript below has been edited for clairty.
Joe Mathieu: Jon, I think Chris Wallace could have used your patented "cocoon of horror" last night.
Jon Keller: You know, Joe, I'm not even sure if that would have done the trick. Wallace is taking a lot of deserved heat. The debate quickly got out of control. If you're going to try to control a situation like that, you have to lay down the law right off the top, and he didn't and he paid the price. But I think the bigger criticism of his work was the questions were poorly phrased and his meta-commentary about, "oh, you're going to like this one, Mr. President," [and] his acceptance of Trump's lie about how he hasn't held indoor rallies. It was not a good night for him. Luckily for him, he was overshadowed by what was going on in front of him.
Mathieu: I actually started to feel bad for him at a certain point.
Clip of debate:
Chris Wallace: Please, sir. Stop. Stop. Mr. Vice President, answer his final question.
Joe Biden: The final question is? I can't remember which of all his rants he was giving.
Wallace: I'm having a little trouble myself.
Mathieu: I wasn't even sure what day it was by the time it was over. Fox News Sunday this was not, Jon. What's your headline this morning? Do you have one? You heard some of the ones that I just mentioned: "Rage on the Stage," "Nasty," said one paper. Can you sum it up in a word?
Keller: How about meltdown? I had CNN on after the debate and I saw Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator [and] normally a reliable Trump toady, just kind of shaking his head saying he overdid it. That's the understatement of the night. For Donald Trump, the task was to try to grab as many undecided voters as he could. Who are the undecided voters? For the most part they're people who are low-information voters [and] they don't follow politics closely at all, largely because they hate politics. They hate the bickering, the partisanship, the meaninglessness in the context of their own lives and their own problems. Well, what did they get from the president? Nothing for them to respond to in a positive way. So in that sense, it was a total political meltdown by the president.
Mathieu: [He] definitely showed up for a fight. We couldn't even count the number of interruptions. He did make headlines, though, when challenged to denounce white supremacy, Jon Keller, specifically a hate group called The Proud Boys. It's a moment from this debate that will likely resonate. This is what happened.
Clip of debate:
President Donald Trump: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.
Wallace: So what are you saying?
Trump: I'm willing to do anything. I want to see to peace.
Wallace: Well, then do it, sir.
Biden: Do it. Say it.
Trump: What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me name. Go ahead. Who would you like me to condemn?
Wallace: White Supremicists and white privilege.
Trump: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about an ANTIFA and the left...
Mathieu: Once again, Jon Keller, [he] did not take the opportunity.
Keller: Well, he didn't take the opportunity, and that speaks to the claim repeated often by Biden last night that he's just a straight up racist. But there's been a lot written recently about the track record of presidential incumbents in their first debate [and] how it tends to not go well to some extent because they've been in a bubble. They don't quite grasp how people on the street are feeling or they're not used to being challenged as directly as you are in a debate. And, boy, this was bad in spades. I mean, he is so deep inside the Fox News, Breitbart right wing media machine bubble that he doesn't even understand what he's talking about. He doesn't understand the terms and so therefore could not respond in a coherent way. This reminded me, Joe, of one of those really crappy amusement park rides you get on where you're in fear for your life the entire time. You just want to make it stop. I was physically nauseated at times; I had to eat a couple of saltines at my desk just to settle my stomach.
Mathieu: A little flat ginger ale. Speaking of bubbles, is Joe Biden in his own bubble? How did the challenger do then, Jon?
Keller: He was not especially sharp, to say the least. He was low key at times to the point of somnolence. And he faltered and stumbled at times. But he also landed his pre-rehearsed punch lines — "COVID is what it is because you are who you are," "this is the same man who said it would be over by Easter." Then the golfing one, "get out of your bunker. Get out of the sand trap and go to work." So he basically had a plan and more or less stuck to it.
Mathieu: He looked directly into the camera, which I don't know that I saw the president do last night.
Keller: Well, that is absolutely a key point that really jumped out at me. First of all, that was good work by Biden to look into the camera, and not just look into the camera, but express empathy with the viewer [and] with the nightmare so many of them are living through and speak directly to them. Trump never did. So who does he think he was talking to? A lot of times it just seemed like he was talking to himself.
Mathieu: I guess I'll ask you lastly, because I was looking forward to this and maybe that makes me part of the problem; a lot of us were looking for an entertaining throwdown and we thought that it would be an historic night with one liners that would last forever and go into the history books. It wasn't fun to watch, Jon. People felt bad after. People felt like they had watched something they didn't want to see [and] that it showed the worst of us. Did it have any impact on the race itself for president?
Keller: You know, who knows. I doubt very much if it did. I agree with you, it's one of those things where you go on Twitter and say you can't unsee this. Wish I could. It was a blown opportunity for the president to explain what his plan is. For instance, it may be disingenuous, but you could, if you were him, tie your approach to COVID management to an overarching philosophy of decentralizing control, getting the feds out of the way so the states and local governments can govern themselves. That's a theme that, in theory, extends through his Supreme Court picks [and] deregulation. It's a potentially appealing theme to swing voters who have low confidence in the federal government to get the job done. But there was none of that. It was just a litany of grievances and grievance politics, and I think we learned in spades last night [it] really has its limits and quickly turns toxic on you, Joe.
Mathieu: Come see us after the next one. We might have to send you out to start moderating. I'm worried about Steve Scully. He's known as the nicest man on television [and] he's going to be moderating the next one of these.
Keller: I'm not sure there's going to be a next one, Joe. Is he really going to get up and do the same thing in front of citizen questioners in a town hall format? God help us.