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Decorum Goes Out The Window In 1st Trump-Biden Presidential Debate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The first presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was unlike any other. The orderly 90-minute debate format broke down into chaos quickly. Despite moderator Chris Wallace's warnings, debate decorum was thrown out the door. Instead, there were interruptions, cross-talking, name-calling, shouting. Here's a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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 have never done that.

JOE BIDEN: The fact is that everything he's saying so far is simply a lie. I'm not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he's a liar...

A single thing...

TRUMP: As you might know but probably don't, Obamacare is no good, Joe.

CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, you realize if you're both speaking at the same time...

TRUMP: And China ate your lunch, Joe. And no wonder...

WALLACE: You get the final word, Mr...

BIDEN: Well, it's hard to get any word in with this clown.

MARTIN: So with all that, it meant that voters who were hoping to get a clearer understanding of the candidates' policy positions, they were pretty much out of luck. I talked to Democratic strategist Karen Finney and Republican strategist Scott Jennings yesterday about their expectations for the debate, and they are back with us this morning.

Hey, guys. Thanks for being here.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

MARTIN: You survive last night? And I use that language particularly because it was just - it was - felt like a real battle. It was at times oppressive to watch. So I will let you two, though, describe it in your own words. Karen, you go first.

FINNEY: It was distressing to watch and chaotic to watch. I mean, look; you know, if you were watching to try to understand something regarding policy, you didn't get that answer. But you got - what you saw was a president who - he just felt - it felt out of control. And the back-and-forth particularly with the moderator, it felt very childish, particularly when you had, you know, Chris Wallace saying, you know, Mr. President, Mr. President, you're going to really like this next question as a way to kind of calm him down. That just was - the lack of decorum and respect and dignity really was beneath the office of the presidency.

MARTIN: Scott, did you think President Trump came off looking strong after that or not?

JENNINGS: No, I didn't. And, you know, we talked yesterday and predicted that he would be aggressive with Biden in an attempt to get him to crack under the pressure and maybe make some misstatements. The trouble is he went from being on offense to being offensive, and he never let the strategy breathe. He never gave Joe Biden that chance to be rattled because Donald Trump never stopped talking for the entirety of the debate. So, no, I didn't think he looked particularly strong.

And I look at this through the lens of audiences. You know, who does Donald Trump have to recapture from the 2016 coalition to win in 2020? And I think about women, who are crushing him in the polling right now. And I think about senior citizens who don't seem to be as hot on him this time around. And I'm not sure either of those audiences picked up in a positive way on anything the president did last night.

MARTIN: I want to play a moment - there were lots of them last night. But I want to focus in on this exchange. Moderator Chris Wallace asked President Trump if he would condemn white supremacist groups. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?

BIDEN: Proud Boys.

WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.

MARTIN: So, Scott, he said stand back, stand by. That's not a condemnation. In fact, the far-right group then pledged allegiance to the president after those comments. Why is he incapable of condemning racist groups?

JENNINGS: Yeah, really, really bad moment. There's only one answer to that question, and that is I condemn them. I condemn anyone in our cities who's causing violence, and nobody comes in my name and causes violence and should expect me to support that. There's only one answer. You're the commander in chief. And if you want to look strong on public safety and law and order, as he calls it, you have to condemn all of these groups no matter what form they come in. He failed it. He missed that question last night, and it's going to be the most talked about issue coming out of the debate because he whiffed it.

FINNEY: But it also...

MARTIN: What do you make - oh, go ahead, Karen.

FINNEY: Well, if I may, I mean, as a Black woman, I mean, I was sickened and terrified, just terrified. It literally made me think his - particularly given the tone of the way he was saying it made me think of those old stories from the '60s about dealing with the Bull Connors of the world. I mean, the - he was so incapable of just saying the word, and there's no reason not to be able to say, I denounce white supremacy or white supremacist violence, for heaven's sake. And it was - you know, it was such a sickening feeling and such a alienating feeling as if I am on my own in this country if my own president doesn't understand why it's important to say that. And the fact that he then went on in part of that exchange to talk about - to say that teaching, you know, racial tolerance or sensitivity is teaching people to hate the country - that means - you know, that we're teaching people the history of, you know, the people in my family who built this country as slaves, teaching the truth about that, that somehow that's inappropriate and then that's something disgusting and despicable is the way he described it. It was beyond the pale and beneath the dignity of the presidency.

MARTIN: May I ask you, Scott, what do you make of the president's continued attempts to undermine the integrity of the election? He did it again last night, refusing to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He urged his supporters to go to the polls to, quote, "watch very carefully" what happens. I mean, does that endear him to independents or people he needs to win?

JENNINGS: Well, he continues to conflate various issues. I mean, look; there have been some reported issues with the mail ballots in some places. Pennsylvania is a good example where some folks are actually having trouble figuring out how to turn them in. And so these are real issues, and so that's one set of things.

MARTIN: It's nothing out of the ordinary. This isn't a widespread problem.

JENNINGS: Well, it is for Pennsylvania, which has no demonstrable history of voting by mail. And my fear for a state like that is several people who think they voted are not going to have their votes counted. And I don't think that's right for people who think they voted to not be counted. But the point is he's conflating those kinds of issues with voter fraud. And when you conflate all of it, I think it confuses the situation, and it does reduce confidence in the overall election. And he's been doing this for several weeks. And no, I don't - look; I think his attacks on the system may be causing some of his own supporters to question their own ballots and to question their own methods for voting. And I'm not sure that's going to help him get the votes he needs.

MARTIN: Are either of you optimistic about the remaining debates in terms of helping voters make a choice? Scott, I'll let you go first. Karen, I'll let you finish.

JENNINGS: Look; I think the town hall format is drastically different than a moderated format, so that could change the tone of this. But unless he lays out a second-term agenda, I mean, the president in either of these next two debates, I don't suspect they'll change the trajectory of the race (ph).

MARTIN: Karen, real quick.

FINNEY: I don't think we're going to see much different in these dynamics. I think you're going to keep seeing that behavior that's unpresidential.

MARTIN: Republican strategist Scott Jennings and Democratic strategist Karen Finney. Thanks to you both.

FINNEY: Thanks.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.