Welcome to Opinion’s commentary for the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In this special feature, Times Opinion writers pick the winner and then rank the victory on a scale of 1 to 10: 1 means it was a very narrow win; 10 means it was a blowout. Here’s what our columnists and contributors thought of the debate.
Who won and why
Jamelle Bouie I’m not going to say Joe Biden won, because he was far from as good as he should have been. But his campaign won, because the only thing anyone will talk about from this debate is the unhinged president who refused to condemn white supremacists before endorsing a right-wing street gang and attacking the integrity of the election.
Elizabeth Bruenig Joe Biden. Trump is excellent at dominating a conversation and has a gift for wry insults Biden can’t match. But that kind of belligerence takes energy, and these are two old men; by mid-debate, Trump seemed to wane, his answers weakening, response time lengthening. Biden, on the other hand, steadily cultivated his two points: That he has no patience for the red specter of leftism that Bernie Sanders dared cast over the primaries, and that he believes in American unity.
Christopher Buskirk Donald Trump. In 1984, Reagan looked tired during his first debate with Walter Mondale, and many people thought he was showing his age. Not Donald Trump. He was on the front foot from the outset and though he never landed a knockout, it was also never close. People will say there was a lack of substance and a lack of dignity and they’ll mostly be right. But after five years of watching Donald Trump, Joe Biden and his team don’t understand that Trump’s strategy is “Just win, baby.” So he dominated Biden, pre-empting him, taking his time, rebutting him on the fly and changing the subject. Trump looked vigorous and energetic and that’s enough to win.
Linda Chavez A draw — Trump was indecent, vindictive and threw red meat to his base. While he may have commanded the stage, he had no substantive answers on anything from Covid to climate change.
Gail Collins Joe Biden. He handled Trump’s yelling-over-everything craziness as well as possible, by just looking at the camera and talking directly to the audience. Also, Biden smiling and shaking his head at the president’s ranting was a welcome break. You could envision millions of viewers nodding in response.
Michelle Cottle Joe Biden. The entire event was a freak show. But Biden held his own against Trump, and that was what he needed to do. Also, Biden clearly realizes the only appropriate way to respond to the president’s chronic lying and childish insults: Taking them seriously would only legitimize them, whereas laughing, smiling and shaking his head in dismay makes Trump seem like a naughty toddler.
Ross Douthat Joe Biden won, because Trump’s strategy was to hector and exhaust him in the hopes of generating a moment of egregious senility, and no such moment arrived. There were plenty of moments when Trump was more effective than Biden, some exchanges he won on points, certainly some moments when he seemed more rhetorically with-it — but the flood of jerkish interruptions is all anyone will remember, and that’s unlikely to help an incumbent disliked by the majority of the country and losing by eight points.
Michelle Goldberg Joe Biden. The debate was a shouty disaster. Chris Wallace was utterly disgraceful as a moderator, constantly letting Trump interrupt Biden and allowing him to spout gross and anti-democratic lies about the legitimacy of the election. Biden got tongue tied and let himself be put on the defensive a few times, especially about riots in Portland, Ore., and his son Hunter. He missed several opportunities to bring up the generals who have spoken out against Trump. But I can’t imagine that anyone not already supporting Trump could be won over by his sneering insults, unhinged ranting and conspiratorial non-sequiturs. Ultimately, talking about this in terms of who “won” seems like a category error. Trump used his massive platform to urge his supporters to intimidate people at the polls. Biden was occasionally ineffectual. One was a bullying fascist, the other an avatar, however imperfect, of civic responsibility. There should be no false equivalency here.
Matt Labash Joe Biden. He did a really lousy impression tonight of a senile person. Which, considering Trump’s multi-month campaign to deem him as such, means he passed the dribble test with flying colors. (As in, he didn’t dribble down his shirt.) But beyond that, Biden appeared more presidential, which is a problem for Trump, considering he’s already president. Trump couldn’t even manage to act like the thing that he already is.
Liz Mair Joe Biden. But who really won? Everyone who didn’t watch. Biden will probably be shown to be the winner in post-debate polling, but as awful as Trump was, for my money, he prevented Biden from landing enough punches and looking as tough and capable as Biden should have and could have.
Daniel McCarthy Joe Biden. President Trump has succeeded by demolishing the artificiality of American politics and occupying far more space in his opponents’ minds, as well as his supporters’, than his rivals do. But he overplayed his hand in this debate, with rougher shock tactics than voters might tolerate. Biden was not persuasive on his own, but this was one night when being plain vanilla was probably enough.
Bret Stephens Joe Biden, because when he got to speak, he did so directly to the American people.
Héctor Tobar Joe Biden won mostly because the president was so, so awful. And because Biden managed to express a few moments of genuine humanity and keep his cool during the waterfall of Trumpian insults. But Biden wasn’t very sharp either; Chris Wallace offered as many effective retorts to the president’s excesses as Biden did.
Charlie Warzel Nobody really won tonight. We all lost. If letting men in their 70s talk over each other is the best way to decide presidential politics, then there’s no good reason to do two more. Ultimately though, Donald Trump’s job was to try to claw back voters who don’t fall squarely within his base. His performance offered nothing to voters who don’t already worship him. No minds changed tonight. So Joe Biden wins by default.
Peter Wehner Joe Biden won because he’s leading in the race and acquitted himself pretty well despite debating a man who is unstable, enraged, highly agitated and vicious: a bonfire of hate and grievance. Biden is normal and decent; Trump is deeply abnormal and indecent.
Will Wilkinson Donald Trump delivered a most grotesque, mendacious, disrespectful and outright disgusting debate performance. Trump’s flagrant indecency, intended to project strength, projected only contempt for America’s voters and democratic traditions. Joe Biden’s forbearance, patience, seriousness and coherence (when he was allowed to speak) shone like a lighthouse showing the way to safe harbor through a raging, chaotic storm.
Most pivotal moment
Jamelle Bouie If there was a pivotal moment for Biden, it came whenever he turned his attention to the pandemic. It’s the most important issue in the election, and Biden monopolized it.
Elizabeth Bruenig Biden’s musing in exasperation that Trump talks only about himself and his achievements, never about their impact on the American people. Whether said people are still entertained by the Trump Show will determine the election.
Christopher Buskirk Biden delivered a rehearsed, set-piece attack that was supposed to hit Trump on the accusation that he disrespects the military in private and then use Beau Biden as a means of making the issue personal. But Trump just sidestepped what was supposed to be a knockout blow and pivoted to accusations about money he claimed Hunter Biden had received from Eastern European connections while his father was vice president.
Linda Chavez Biden was at his best when he looked into the camera and implored people to vote.
Gail Collins For Trump, it was sort of amazing to hear him explain that global warming is because of bad forest management. For Biden, his final “vote, vote” speech was clear and made Trump’s blather about mail fraud look truly pathetic.
Michelle Cottle The president calling for the Proud Boys to “stand by” is unlikely to impress all those suburban women already worried that the president is playing footsie with white supremacists.
Ross Douthat The worst moment for Trump was his endless ramble at the end about voter fraud, following one of Biden’s better, simpler answers, his exhortation to go vote. There are times when Trump’s political abnormality plays to his advantage, but his inability to project even a facade of respect-the-process normalcy in a country desperate for a return to normal is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.
Michelle Goldberg Trump, called on to disavow white supremacy, couldn’t do it. He told the far-right gang the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which they’ve now adopted as a rallying cry.
Matt Labash One word: Covid. On that subject, Biden spanked Trump, and sent him to bed without his Quarter-Pounder dinner. He attacked Trump on deaths (over 200,000). He attacked Trump on masks. (Trump, who clearly hates masks, conveniently pulled one from his pocket, turning himself into some bad Carrot Top-style prop comedian.) Then Biden attacked Trump on attacking his own scientists, which Trump took the occasion to do yet again, because he can’t help himself. Trump not being able to help himself is exactly why Biden beat Trump tonight like the family mule.
Liz Mair Trump “condemning” right-wingers inciting violence by asking the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” He’s going to get attacked for that a lot, it will anger a lot of his own staff and advisers and independents view the law and order discussion far more the way Democrats do than Republicans.
Daniel McCarthy Trump chose to fight not only Biden but also the debate process and conventional politics itself. The cost of this, besides turning off wavering voters, is that it blotted out most of the substantial arguments that could be made for the president’s agenda.
Bret Stephens Biden’s deflecting Trump’s despicable dismissal of his late son Beau’s military service by telling Americans that the election was about their families, not Trump’s family or his own.
Héctor Tobar Just a few minutes into the debate, the president resorted to ad hominem attacks, with his “There’s nothing smart about you” being his worst moment. (Second worst: his unwillingness to condemn white supremacy.) Biden’s description of the racially integrated reality of the suburbs was his best moment.
Charlie Warzel There’s a cyberwarfare tactic called distributed denial-of-service attacks, which is when hackers overwhelm a website with more fake traffic than it can process and cause the website to crash. This was Trump’s tactic at the beginning of the debate. At first it looked like it would be effective and ultimately stymie Biden from getting even a few words in. But ultimately it served only to light a fire under Biden, who seemed subdued early on but was subsequently enlivened by Trump’s childish behavior.
Peter Wehner There was no pivotal moment. It was 90 minutes of watching the president of the United States show he is a sociopath. Most people have never fully internalized what it means to have a sociopath as president. They should have.
Will Wilkinson Trump was asked to condemn white supremacy and the Proud Boys, a violent, racist gang, and simply refused. Instead, he said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” suggesting, no doubt truthfully, that they await his orders and that he cannot afford to lose their support.
Something small but revealing …
Jamelle Bouie I don’t know if this counts as small, but again, when asked directly, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists. On one hand, it only confirmed what we all knew. On the other, it confirmed what we all knew!
Elizabeth Bruenig “This is not going to end well,” Trump said, near the end of the debate, a prophecy with the threat of fulfillment.
Christopher Buskirk Throughout the debate Biden looked to Chris Wallace for help, almost begging him to enforce the rules as Trump stepped on him. That’s an indication that he doesn’t know how to handle either Trump or an environment where the rules aren’t well known and strictly enforced by a third party. That’s a difference between a senator and a president.
Linda Chavez Tonight we watched Trump try to bully his way back to the Oval Office.
Gail Collins Trump made more faces than any debater I’ve seen since fifth grade.
Michelle Cottle Biden’s repeated pleas for people to vote sent an important signal. Trump, meanwhile, went alllllll the way down the rabbit hole, attacking the integrity of the election, peddling conspiracy theories about fraud and generally ranting and raving. “Bad things happen in Philadelphia!” What? This may resonate with the president’s base, but it made him look more than a little unbalanced.
Ross Douthat Trump’s very first answer, on the Supreme Court, was actually quite reasonable: cool, calm, mild, even vaguely presidential. Biden has a lot of liabilities; a debate in which Trump just maintained a level tone and played against type would have given the incumbent a lot of openings. But — as ever — Trump can only be himself.
Michelle Goldberg Biden had a few good lines. The best was when he said, echoing Trump’s dismissive words about Covid deaths, “It is what it is because you are who you are.”
Matt Labash There were a few dogs that didn’t bark in this debate. But chief among them was Trump failing to try to drug-test Biden on the spot for performance-enhancing drugs, which he’s suggested Biden is taking. This was a bit of a relief, and one of the few moments of dignity the night afforded. Rumor has it that Trump scotched the idea when he found out from his accountants that the urine-specimen cup was not tax deductible.
Liz Mair How bad was this debate? Dana Bash of CNN straight up called it a “shitshow“ live on CNN afterward.
Daniel McCarthy Not a small thing, but the lack of a live audience made the debate much worse. A normal live audience would have reacted to the bickering onstage, which would have drawn President Trump to address attendees, and perhaps do so with humor — which would have helped him.
Bret Stephens There was nothing small about the debate. Watching Trump was like being cornered by some oversize, overbearing drunk at a party who spills his beer on you while insisting that Lee Harvey Oswald is still alive. It was the single most despicable political performance by a sitting president in American history. Trump didn’t debate, because he doesn’t know how to debate: He interrupted, taunted, hectored, bragged and ultimately beclowned himself. The debate will be remembered for the contrast between this grotesque parody of a president and his dignified, well-comported, blessedly coherent challenger. Biden didn’t get to speak as much as he deserved, but when he did — most effectively by looking straight at the camera — he hit home.
Héctor Tobar Has Trump ever been this bullying in a debate? He seemed to insult with the desperation of a man who sees his political future coming to an end. Biden did best when he dealt with Trump’s excesses with humor. I loved his early retort, as Trump interrupted, “Keep yapping, man.”
Charlie Warzel Allowing Trump to undermine the electoral process on live television without adequate pushback on his claims was a dereliction of duty by Chris Wallace. If these debates are to continue, networks will need to find a way to fact check them or else they’re largely vectors for Trump’s disinformation. Also, the president, when asked to disavow white supremacists, told them to “stand by.” Trump suggested, vaguely, that “this is not going to end well.” At least we agree on that point.
Peter Wehner Maybe the lowest point in an unbelievable series of low points was when Biden spoke movingly of his late son Beau, in the context of his war service, and Trump attacked Biden’s son Hunter as a drug addict. Trump once again showed he’s a monstrous human being.
Will Wilkinson Trump more than once attempted to characterize Biden as some sort of socialist radical. In each case, Biden denied it and asserted his actual, moderate view. And then Trump would yell, “You just lost the left!” bizarrely undercutting his initial line of attack and underscoring the futile incoherence of his strategy of flailing bluster.
Jamelle Bouie, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and Bret Stephens are Times columnists.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is a Times opinion writer.
Christopher Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) is the editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness and a contributing opinion writer.
Linda Chavez (@chavezlinda), a former Reagan White House director of public liaison, is a political commentator.
Michelle Cottle (@mcottle) is a member of the Times editorial board.
Matt Labash, a former national correspondent at The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader.”
Liz Mair (@LizMair), a strategist for campaigns by Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry, is the founder and president of Mair Strategies.
Héctor Tobar (@TobarWriter), an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” and a contributing opinion writer.
Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations, is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”
Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson), the vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, is a contributing opinion writer.