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How much value does a chaotic debate yield for the American people?

Tuesday night’s face-off between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a presidential debate like none in recent memory. Were viewers actually able to learn anything about the candidates and their policies, or did the chaos overwhelm substance entirely? The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Sewell Chan of the Los Angeles Times join Judy Woodruff to discuss how to move forward.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on last night's presidential debate that was unlike any other debate we have witnessed or read about, I'm joined by Dan Balz, chief correspondent at The Washington Post, and Sewell Chan. He's the editorial page editor at The Los Angeles Times.

    We welcome both you of to the "NewsHour."

    Dan Balz, to you first.

    You and I have been covering politics for about the same length of time. I have never seen anything like this. What about you?

  • Dan Balz:

    I agree, Judy. And I don't think anybody who is alive today has ever seen anything like we saw last night.

    You know, this is a presidency that has been unlike every other presidency, and so I guess we should have assumed that this debate would be unlike any that we had seen. The president set the tone. He decided that he wanted to make this a chaotic evening.

    Joe Biden was caught up in his wake. And I think that, in the end, there were probably many, many people who turned this debate off, rather than sticking with it to the end.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sewell Chan, I saw you were commenting on this debate last night. How was it different from what you expected?

  • Sewell Chan:

    Well, in a way, I did expect Trump to come out swinging, and he delivered.

    And the biggest concern that I had was really the format of the debate. I felt, actually, a little bit sorry at times for the moderator, Chris Wallace. I think he tried his best.

    But, for me, one of the most dramatic moments was when Wallace asked the president directly whether he was going to abide by rules to which his campaign had agreed. It seemed a little bit out of control at times.

    And my fears are for the viewers at home, whether they feel that the whole thing is so disgusting and so sad, that they just feel tuned out of politics altogether.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question that is on the minds of many of us.

    Dan Balz, you said the president set the tone. Does he bear the main responsibility, do you think, for what happened last night?

  • Dan Balz:

    I do, Judy.

    I mean, he was the aggressor, which Sewell said, we expected that to be the case. But he was — he was constantly interrupting. He was constantly talking over the Vice President Biden. He was not willing to abide by the rules that Chris Wallace was trying desperately to enforce.

    And so I think that you have to say that he was responsible for the overall tone and tenor of it. People will judge his performance vs. Biden's performance partly through partisan lenses and through other ways.

    But I think that you have to lay this on the president of the United States for having decided, for whatever his reasons, that this was going to be the way he wanted to conduct the debate, and everybody else on the stage kind of had to — had to live with that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sewell Chan, how do you see the cause of it going off the rails?

    I know that some of the voters who my colleague Amna Nawaz talked with overnight were saying it was just — it was both candidates. They felt the entire atmosphere was extremely unpleasant. How do you see the cause here?

  • Sewell Chan:

    I believe Trump has the majority of the blame. He did more interrupting, as Chris Wallace pointed out, and his just general demeanor from the outset was one of aggressive confrontation.

    That said, Biden was not completely innocent. He called Trump a clown, called him a fool, called Trump the worst president America has ever had, and at one point told him to shut up. And I thought that that was exceptionally coarse and exceptionally troubling coming from a leader who's trying to project himself as more of a statesman.

    I do think Biden did manage to come across as calmer, more presidential. But, nonetheless, the level of discourse reached a new low yesterday.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dan, I saw in what you wrote today in The Washington Post. You called it an insult to the American people, a sad example of democracy.

    Expand on that. What are you saying?

  • Dan Balz:

    Well, Judy, we're five weeks away from what many people regard as the most important election in our lifetimes, and maybe longer than that.

    And this was the first opportunity for all of the country to see these two candidates on the stage together and, frankly, for the rest of the world to look at these two candidates.

    And, if you look at some of the commentary that has come from overseas, some of the newspaper reportage on the debate, and some of the punditry coming about the debate, what you see is people looking at America through a different lens, looking at America as a country that is totally inward-looking, incredibly divided, unable, in a sense, to make its democracy work in an even mildly harmonious way.

    And so I think that, in the overall tone and tenor of the debate, that was the view of a lot of Americans who were also watching. So, I mean, these Presidential Commission debates that are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates have served the country reasonably well.

    I know there are people who criticize this or that aspect of it. But these are events, three presidentials and one vice presidential, every four years in which the format is designed to let people make some judgments, both about where these candidates stand and who these candidates are.

    On where these candidates stand, we did not learn that much. On who these candidates are, I think we did learn a lot last night.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sewell Chan, should the debates continue?

    I mean, is there more the American people can learn from these debates? The commission is saying today it's going to change the rules in some way. What do you think?

  • Sewell Chan:

    Well, I think, as Senator Kamala Harris said yesterday, it's unlikely that Vice President Biden would choose not to participate.

    This is — it will remain, of course, an important opportunity for him to communicate directly to the American people, the voters. And he's unlikely to pass up that airtime.

    That said, the Commission on Presidential Debates has a monumental task in front of it. How do they devise the rules when you have one or more participants who don't want to play by those rules?

    And I think, short of adopting an automatic kill switch to cut off the mic, or the moderator raising his or her voice, it seems very, very difficult. This is a norm-defying president, so it's no surprise that the commission's norms have been defied.

    So, I think the biggest question going forward is, what will the commission do? Is the format adequate? Can it sustain this level of deviation from the tradition?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dan, what about the basic question? I mean, is there more to be learned through these debates? I mean, for the American people, should there be more debates?

  • Dan Balz:

    Well, Judy, there is more to be learned, because, in most of the segments that Chris Wallace laid out last night, there was never a real discussion of the issues that he was trying to get the candidates to talk about.

    I don't think either candidate fully gave people an understanding of where they really want to take the country. The debate was too chaotic for that to happen.

    So, there is a lot that people can learn, but I think only if the — both participants, and particularly the president, frankly, agree to tone it down some and to have a — if not a civil debate, a debate in which each candidate has an opportunity to speak uninterrupted.

    I believe the commission is looking hard at this question of what do you do about somebody who interrupts all the time? Can you cut off the microphone, and whose responsibility should that be?

    These are all very, very difficult questions when you you're dealing with an incumbent president, a former vice president who wants to be president.

    But, yes, there is much more to be learned, but only if the format and the candidates agree to make it happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sewell Chan, what do you think the likelihood of that is?

    And I realize this is speculating.

  • Sewell Chan:

    The Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonprofit independent organization. It's been doing its work since the late 1980s. Dan points out that, generally, they have produced very high-quality events.

    I personally think that they're — that they should be open to more radical changes in format, perhaps a longer debate, perhaps longer intervals of speaking time, perhaps multiple moderators, including people with really a policy expertise, because, let's face it, I mean, Chris Wallace, I think, was trying his best.

    But it's hard to — it's hard to be a moderator if you're also trying to be a baby-sitter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sewell Chan, Dan Balz, we thank you very much. We will see what happens.

    Thank you.

  • Sewell Chan:

    Thanks.

  • Dan Balz:

    Thank you.

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