Opinion | ‘The More I Watched, the More Unsettled I Felt’

Shortly after President Trump and Joe Biden exited the stage, our Opinion writers began dissecting the first presidential debate, highlighting the evening’s most pivotal moments and noting who they thought stood to gain the most.

We asked readers to do the same. In just a few hours we were reading thousands of responses from all over the country. “It was more a brawl than a debate,” wrote Rebecca Jessup in Maine. “Trump threw monkey wrenches whenever he could.”

According to Jeff Neuman in Santa Rosa, Calif., “Neither displayed confidence or leadership. Biden let himself be goaded into a tit-for-tat game.”

Others, like Hannah Callas in Chicago, homed in on specifics amid the hyperbole: “It was a Fox News moderator who asked the first climate change question in 12 years of presidential debates,” she wrote.

And for Geordan Gutow in Atlanta, “the contrast between Biden’s calm address to the nation on ballot integrity and Trump’s wild claims about mail-in ballots” could be the thing that sways undecided voters.

More observations from our readers, edited for length and clarity, follow. Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Who won and why

Rebecca Jessup, Belfast, Maine: I’d say that Biden wins on reason, facts, having plans and making sense. Trump wins on interrupting, flinging insults and taking up as much time as possible. It was more a brawl than a debate because Trump can’t follow directions — never has and never will. Trump threw monkey wrenches whenever he could. He broke the debate, left it in shambles.

Charles McComas, Charlotte, N.C.: What debate? I thought it was two old guys at the V.F.W. yelling at each other about politics.

John M. Grondelski, Perth Amboy, N.J.: Trump made clear he was not going to be intimidated by convention.

Rosemary Feraldi, Columbia, Mo.: It was an interruption match. Joe Biden did what he needed to do. He spoke directly to the American people. He stayed on task. He made his talking points. I would give him this debate.

Xiaoting Xu, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Joe Biden. He outperformed my expectations and won my millennial heart with meme-able moments like calling Trump “Putin’s puppy.”

Most pivotal moment

Gail Zoppa, New London, Wis.: Trump refused to stand up to white supremacy. In fact, Trump called on the “Proud Boys” to stand by and be ready. To me, this is encouraging violence.

Brooke Rettig, New Orleans: The most pivotal moment for me was when Trump and Biden were bickering about Hunter Biden, and Joe looked into the camera and said, “It’s not about my family or his family, it’s about your family.” I am not OK with family members of politicians leveraging the allure of their name in order to make money overseas; yes, that needs to change. But do I care about it right now? No!

Jim Dawson, New Lebanon, N.Y.: Biden speaking about his son, Beau, was his most honest moment but I wanted to hear purpose and direction for the nation. It never emerged.

Catherine Matson, Elgin, Ill.: Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and calling him a “clown” was immature and a form of bullying. Regardless of who is running, showing disrespect toward a president is uncalled-for.

Rachel May, Syracuse, N.Y.: After all the messy confusion in the first two-thirds, I thought the part about climate change finally crystallized the difference between them. It was the best chance for viewers to see diametrically opposed policy views and solutions.

Paolo Stohlman, Maryland: Trump’s moment: not explicitly stating that Roe v. Wade is on the ballot and general vagueness on the abortion issue. Biden’s moment: talking about the importance of kindness and honesty, and unequivocally accepting the results of the elections.

Beth Daugherty, Columbus, Ohio: “It is what it is because you are who you are.” Biden to Trump about his coronavirus response. That line is much more important than any of the others. Other pivotal moments: whenever Biden looked straight at the camera and talked to the American people. He showed he knows we are who matter, who count.

Something small but revealing …

Jackson Miller, Tallahassee, Fla.: When Chris Wallace announced that the candidates wouldn’t shake hands because of social distancing rules I wondered, would they have otherwise? This is maybe the first presidential debate in which neither candidate will pretend to respect the other or make any kind of nod to the idea of shared patriotism. Many will mourn the loss of this kind of pablum, but I think others will find it refreshing. At least the contest feels a little more like a real choice and less like a friendly country club rivalry.

Danny Bressler, New York, N.Y.: The background on the debate stage said “The Union and the Constitution Forever” while Trump was trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election, calling it “rigged.” That was a bit ironic.

Jeff B. Richards, Albuquerque: I was mesmerized by the president’s expressions. At times he would have that stony expression, even when Biden was describing something like a huge number of deaths. No flicker of emotion. The more I watched, the more unsettled I felt.

Leander Ballwart, New York, N.Y.: Even though Trump was a bull in a china shop, at least he had stamina which, unfortunately, Biden lacked for the most part. Subconsciously, this will matter a lot to the average voter.

Benjamin Cohen, Austin, Texas: Biden made the most shocking and arrogant statement of the night: “I am the Democratic Party.” Throughout the debate Biden bought into Trump’s premise that the “radical left” is scary and dangerous. As a former Bernie supporter who’s come to identify as “leftist,” I felt that Biden essentially told me I wasn’t wanted or needed in his coalition.

Mary Bogart, Sturgis, Mich.: Two things: Trump repeatedly calling the vice president “Joe,” especially at the beginning of the debate, and Trump going down the rabbit hole on voting near the end. It was like he was trying to get every conspiracy and outright lie in before his time ran out.

Nancy A. Shinabargar, Reno, Nev.: Biden just seemed to drift. Why not punch Trump back? How can Biden fight for the U.S. against aggressive world leaders? Trump was as good as Reagan in using television and threw many punches.

Jennie Brown, Trinidad, Calif.: There wasn’t much that I would call small in that debate. It was loud, abrasive and out of control. I felt Biden really did want to speak to the American people, he was earnest in that desire, whereas Trump had a scorched-earth approach. It was exhausting to sit through.

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