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Shouting, Interruptions Detract From Policy Issues In Presidential Debate


All right. So what, if anything, can voters take away from last night's presidential debate when it comes to substance? We've got NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: We just heard the voices of a lot of undecided voters or at least some who were disappointed. I mean, did you hear any policy in that debate?

LIASSON: There was some policy. It was hard to hear it because of all the shouting and the interruptions, made a lot of voters probably long for a commercial break, which they didn't have last night. But the president came in with a clear strategy. He was trying to throw Biden off his game, to show that he was the senile old guy that he's been talking about on the campaign trail. And the president wanted Biden to make a mistake, get angry, lose his train of thought, and he really dominated the debate, kept the spotlight on himself for better or for worse.

MARTIN: So did that mean the president's strategy worked? I mean, was Biden able to land any of his critiques?

LIASSON: Well, that's unclear, but what Biden was trying to do, if the president had a strategy, Biden had a message. He would periodically turn to the camera, kind of break the fourth wall, talk about the personal stakes of COVID, appeal directly to voters, talk about Trump's lack of empathy. Especially when Trump was attacking his son, Biden tried to turn that around, too. Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN: Look, here's the deal. We want to talk about families and ethics, I don't want to do that. I mean, his family we could talk about all night. His family's...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My family lost a fortune by coming down and helping us with government.

CHRIS WALLACE: Go ahead. Go ahead, sir. Go ahead. Mr. President.

TRUMP: And they're right here. And every single one of them lost a fortune by coming and helping us with government.

BIDEN: And that's such a great - this is not about my family or his family. It's about your family.

TRUMP: They didn't collect $3 1/2 million.

BIDEN: That's not true. It doesn't want to talk about what you need, you, the American people. It's about you.

LIASSON: And that's the Biden message. He doesn't care about you.

MARTIN: So let's talk about race because there were a couple of interesting moments on this. Both candidates were asked about the racial divisions in this country, issues surrounding that. At one point, President Trump said that racial sensitivity training at federal agencies shouldn't happen anymore. Let's listen.


TRUMP: We have to go back to the core values of this country. They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place. It's a racist place. And they were teaching people to hate our country. And I'm not going to allow that to happen.

MARTIN: Mara, who's he appealing to? Who does he think he's appealing to with that?

LIASSON: Well, I think he's appealing to - he thinks he's appealing to his base. The most stunning moment in this discussion about race was when the president was asked to specifically condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right white supremacist racist group, and he wouldn't do it. He said they should stand back and stand by. And I know you're going to get into this later in the show but, of course, the Proud Boys were ecstatic. They immediately made that phrase into a logo and shoulder patches. But he has been asked repeatedly over the last three or four years to condemn white supremacists, and he has uniformly refused.

MARTIN: Another notable moment - Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked how the president would handle any possible delay in the election results, right? If it's close, counting ballots takes a long time. Let's listen to that.


WALLACE: Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest? And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified? President Trump, you go first.

TRUMP: I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that's what has to happen.

MARTIN: Mara, what does he mean - go watch the polls?

LIASSON: Well, you know, it's interesting because to become a poll watcher, there are a lot of rules. States have rules about what you have to do, how you have to get trained. There's no such thing as just going and watching the polls. Democrats say that's voter intimidation. And the president repeatedly has refused to say he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Again, he did it last night. He's continued to say that the election is rigged unless he wins. And it raises the question about whether votes can be counted quickly and accurately, whether we'll get a result that both candidates are willing to accept. And it also raises the prospect of violence or civil unrest if one side doesn't like the outcome.

MARTIN: Is there any way to measure whether either candidate got an advantage last night or do we just move on? Like, do we just call this a wash?

LIASSON: Well, there'll be polls that tell us whether this changed any people's minds. There's only a tiny sliver of voters that are still undecided. But there were some focus groups last night conducted by Frank Luntz, who does this all the time. And he asked the people in the focus group, undecided voters, to put an adjective on each candidate. The adjectives for Trump were chaotic, arrogant and unhinged. The adjectives for Biden were competent, presidential and better than expected. So even though Democrats think that Biden wasn't as strong or forceful as he could have been, they're pretty happy with his performance. Republicans say they like what Trump did, but a lot of his supporters say he also went too far.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

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

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.