After Tuesday’s presidential debate, ABC senior congressional correspondent Mary Bruce and World News Tonight anchor David Muir were opining from another planet, insisting Joe Biden kept “his cool,” was “the adult in the room,” and remained “fairly steady in temperament and tone” despite calling Trump “a clown,” “the worst President...ever” and told him to “shut up.”
But in contrast to NBC’s meltdown, ABC provided a wider variety of perspectives for longer period of time and offered a more even share of the blame between Biden and President Trump for the raucousness (aside from Bruce and Muir).
Bruce told chief anchor George Stephanopoulos that “Biden’s campaign is feeling very good right now” as they went “into tonight with a goal not to get dragged into the mud with Donald Trump but to instead speak directly to the American people about what they feel are the issues that matter.”
Once she finished relaying what she heard from a campaign aide, Bruce added her own takes, including the hot take that Biden’s insults was actually proof that he was calm and “the adult in the room” (click “expand”):
George, this was just remarkable. I mean, when you take a step back and you think about the fact that in a normal debate, every — if you were to call your opponent a clown, racist, the worst President ever, to tell him to shut up or to shush, normally, that would be considered crossing a line, but here tonight, that was part of a concerted strategy by Joe Biden to try and show that he could keep his cool, actually. It's part of an effort by Joe Biden to show that he can be the adult in the room, to guide the country out of these really turbulent times. And so, over and over again, he simply refused to give credence to the President's attacks, even though, let's be honest, there were parts of that debate that were simply unwatchable because the two of them were just talking over and over each other.
I mean, here in the room, it was really astounding and it was apparent, as you watched it, that the President was often turned to the former vice president, pointing his finger at time, speaking to him. Joe Biden staring down the camera, trying to speak to the American people, making his point. The Biden campaign says all you saw tonight from the president was chaos, what you saw from Joe Biden was stability, they say.
A few minutes later, Muir pointed to how America seems to be in a state of exhaustion over the chaos and death we’ve experienced in 2020 and that the debate did nothing to relieve that.
After Muir hilariously asserted that “what we always think about here as we do the news” has been “the folks at home,” he claimed that Biden “was fairly steady in temperament and tone” and thus achieved a goal of no “unforced errors” or “get[ing] pulled into personal attacks.”
Rewinding to as the debate ended, Stephanopoulos admitted “it is hard to start” as he wasn’t “sure how people are going to feel,” but as someone “who has watched presidential debates for 40 years, as somebody who has moderated presidential debates, somebody who has prepared candidates for presidential debates, as someone who has covered presidential debates, that was the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.”
In contrast with Bruce and Muir, chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl was more even-keeled, saying “the debate was a total mess” with “interruptions” and “petty insults.” Karl said Trump had “an avalanche...of untruth statements,” but quickly knocked Biden for having given “not...a particularly steady performance.”
Rounding out the reporters, national correspondent Linsey Davis opined that Trump’s statements about white supremacists was “heard loud and clear” by “the black community,” senior White House correspondent Cecilia Vega fretted “the takeaway...will be exhaustion,” and global affairs correspondent (and 2016 debate co-moderator) Martha Raddatz called the evening “mud wrestling.”
Like during the conventions, Stephanopoulos had on hand usual panelists Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel, Sara Fagen, and Yvette Simpson. But this time, he added in faux Republican Matthew Dowd. Here were some key quotes from each (click “expand”):
STEPHANOPOULOS: Chris Christie, you helped prepare the President for this debate .Was that the debate you prepared for?
CHRISTIE: No...I don't think that's a reassuring performance by the vice president tonight. He looked very shaky at many times. His numbers were way off. He would wander off in mid sentence and then used lots of name-calling and insulting language. That's not rising above it....I think on the Trump side, it was too hot. I mean, you know, listen, you come in, decide you want to be aggressive and that was the right thing to be aggressive, but that was too hot. And so I think that what happens is, with all that heat, as you said before, you lose the light. That potentially can be fixed. Maybe, maybe not. We'll have to see on the Trump side. On the Biden side, I'd be very concerned that his problems can't be fixed because if you are not up to being able to stand up there for 90 minutes and be consistently coherent, people are going to wonder whether you're going to be able do that[.]
EMANUEL: I think Joe Biden did a smart strategy of a rope a dope, because in fact, the President looked totally out of control and Chris Wallace basically said that and the President needed to change people's perception. He looked exactly like the bully that people have been exhausted by for three and a half years. I think the vice president steadied as the night went on.
FAGEN: [T]his was a total food fight. I don't think either of these candidates won. There were moments where the President was setting up the choice in this election, but they just devolved and they devolved too quickly and the challenge for the president, I agree with Jon Karl, that, in a place where he doesn't command the stage in a presidential way, he's not getting ahead.
SIMPSON: I think this debate was an unmitigated disaster and Trump's performance has shown me exactly why our country is in the state that we're in right now. The fact that we've survived to this point with that kind of leadership, I think, is amazing....It was just completely out of control...By the end, it was clear that even [Biden] was getting unsettled and I think got a little too hot towards the end, too. I wish he had taken a deep breath. But he had a huge challenge, because Donald Trump really, really was a disaster and I'm really, really afraid for our country, unfortunately, if he wins[.]
DOWD: [I]f you are in a foreign country, you look at our United States right now, if you watched that, you'd think this was an embarrassment. If you are sitting in our country, it's embarrassing and that embarrassment falls directly at the feet of Donald Trump. I actually think there was a winner tonight, and that winner was Joe Biden....Joe Biden, yeah, he had good moments, he had some moments where he had a hard time dealing with this, and as I said going into this debate, that Donald Trump's a bull in a China shop, well, the bull was let loose in the China shop, the moderator tried as best they could to control it.
To see the relevant ABC transcript from September 29, click “expand.”
The First Presidential Debate -- Your Voice Your Vote 2020: An ABC News Special
September 29, 2020
10:39 p.m. Eastern
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, it is hard to know where to start. I'm not sure how people are going to feel about that to be continued at the end and people have to make their own judgments about how the candidates handled themselves tonight, who made the better case, who offered plans for the future, who told the truth, and who deserves to be president. Those are all judgments that are going to be made over the next several days and weeks. But I have to speak personally here as somebody who has watched presidential debates for 40 years, as somebody who has moderated presidential debates, somebody who has prepared candidates for presidential debates, as someone who has covered presidential debates, that was the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life. A lot more heat than light over some 98 minutes. I want to go to the room right now. Jon Karl, you were there in the room, you covered the President, your thoughts?
JONATHAN KARL: George, the debate was a total mess. It was a mess of interruptions, petty insults. I was in touch with some people on the floor who described — who told me they were stunned by what they were seeing transpire on that stage. Donald Trump came across like a bully, there was an avalanche of — of untruth statements that came out. Joe Biden did not have a particularly steady performance. I could say really, honestly, it looks like both men lost this debate and in that sense, the real loser is Donald Trump. As we said at the start, Donald Trump needed to change the dynamic of this race. He is the one that is losing. He is the one that needed to change the trajectory. He needed a big win and that did not happen tonight.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mary Bruce?
MARY BRUCE: Well, Joe Biden's campaign is feeling very good right now. They came into tonight with a goal not to get dragged into the mud with Donald Trump but to instead speak directly to the American people about what they feel are the issues that matter and the campaign aide tells me that every single time that Joe Biden essentially went around the President and stared straight down the barrel of the camera and talked to the American public, spoke to voters, directly about a vaccine, about the economy, COVID, about election integrity, they say every single one of those moments, they were winning. George, this was just remarkable. I mean, when you take a step back and you think about the fact that in a normal debate, every — if you were to call your opponent a clown, racist, the worst President ever, to tell him to shut up or to shush, normally, that would be considered crossing a line, but here tonight, that was part of a concerted strategy by Joe Biden to try and show that he could keep his cool, actually. It's part of an effort by Joe Biden to show that he can be the adult in the room, to guide the country out of these really turbulent times. And so, over and over again, he simply refused to give credence to the President's attacks, even though, let's be honest, there were parts of that debate that were simply unwatchable because the two of them were just talking over and over each other. I mean, here in the room, it was really astounding and it was apparent, as you watched it, that the President was often turned to the former vice president, pointing his finger at time, speaking to him. Joe Biden staring down the camera, trying to speak to the American people, making his point. The Biden campaign says all you saw tonight from the president was chaos, what you saw from Joe Biden was stability, they say.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you, Mary Bruce.
STEPHANOPOULOS: David Muir, we're going to have to do it on GMA tomorrow, you'll have to do it on World News Tonight tomorrow night. What is the lede of this debate?
DAVID MUIR: Well, you know, as we were going into this tonight, George, one of the things that you and I were talking about the level of exhaustion in this country. We have to remember that the backdrop for this entire debate is this coronavirus pandemic, 200,000 American lives have been lost. The economy, millions on unemployment and people are exhausted. They want to know, when is this going to end? Who has a plan to help guide the way through? And you have to wonder if tonight did anything to further that argument or put people at home, and that's what we always think about here as we do the news, are the folks at home, did it put anyone at peace about the future of our country and the immediate months and years to come in how he navigate our way out of this moment? We talked about President Trump, this was a unique opportunity for him to come in and say, here's what I will do over my next four years, I'm not sure we heard a lot of that tonight. And Joe Biden had to come in and we said, no unforced errors, don't get pulled into the personal attacks. I do think he was fairly steady in temperament and tone but I do wonder if people will be frustrated at home, no matter how difficult it was on that stage and in those moments, that they didn't hear enough, really from either about their specific plans of guiding this nation forward.
STEPHANOPOULOS: One thing that is getting a lot of notice, Linsey Davis, online, the President refused to condemn white supremacists.
LINSEY DAVIS: Right and he said he would, when he was asked, sure, I will, and then he ended up essentially giving a call to action, saying stand back and stand by. That was something that really got my attention and I was — I can't say I was surprised, but it was really a moment that I think that people especially in the black community heard loud and clear.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Martha Raddatz, I don't envy anybody the job Chris Wallace had tonight, but I wonder what lessons moderators going forward, supposed to be two more presidential debates, the vice presidential debate, are going to take from this.
MARTHA RADDATZ: As I said going in, it takes a lion tamer in a debate with Donald Trump and you needed ten lion tamers tonight. I think Chris Wallace tried. I think, at some point, you just have to stop it. It was not a presidential debate, it was mud wrestling and as David pointed out, in the middle of a pandemic, I have been in touch with some voters who I met on our cross-country trip. There was one man who was leaning towards Trump, but going into the debate tonight, he was leaning towards Biden, but he did not like the name-calling, he did not like Biden dropping to the level he said of Donald Trump and a lot of talk about the military tonight, as you know, George, I'm in touch with a lot of people in the military. One of them said to me tonight, “this is the most shameful interaction between two leaders ever, ever, I am sad and ashamed.”
STEPHANOPOULOS: Just a bit of time left here in on post debate analysis. Cecilia Vega, you cover the White House everyday as our senior White House correspondent.
CECILIA VEGA: Not at a lot of undecided voters left in this race, George. For those leaning one way or the other, I don't think they got a lot out of this tonight. I keep thinking about the 200,000 people dead in this pandemic, the high rate of unemployment that we are looking at right now, and the takeaway for most Americans after watching this tonight, I think, will be exhaustion.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And one of the things we are already seeing online in the wake of this debate, a lot of people wondering, will there be more debates after this? Will we see the final two presidential debates, the vice presidential debates [sic]? A lot of people disappointed in what they saw tonight, wondering if it's something we should see again.