Poor Chris Wallace, the debate moderator who couldn’t.
As the first—and possibly last—televised presidential shoutfest of the 2020 general election campaign devolved Tuesday night from the worst Thanksgiving dinner ever to a drunken, knife-wielding bar fight between Donald Trump and Joe Biden amid shattered beer mugs, the Fox News Sunday anchor was powerless to stop the American carnage.
“Chris Wallace did not act as moderator. Donald Trump was the abuser and Chris Wallace was among the abused,” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace (no relation) said when it was all over and the only thing left to do was shoot the wounded.
“The debate moderator didn’t hold his [Trump’s] feet to the fire,” she added, and rejected any defense that there was very little that Wallace could do to quash Trump’s rants. “Try driving down the highway in a rainstorm with an eight-year-old in the backseat screaming,” said the MSNBC anchor, the single mom of a young boy. “There’s always something you can do.”
She was among the legions of kibitzers who lamented Chris Wallace’s inability to control what CNN’s Dana Bash (boldly exploring the frontiers of on-air discourse) called “a shit show,” and her colleague Jake Tapper described as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”
About two thirds of the way through this television equivalent of root canal, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski fairly shouted on Twitter: “CHRIS WALLACE DO BETTER. STOP THE DEBATE AND SPEAK TO THE AUDIO CONTROLLER on LIVE TV AND LEARN HOW TO CUT TRUMPS MIC. YOU ARE FAILING THIS IMPORTANT MOMENT…”
It’s a mystery, for now, what happened to Wallace, who understandably didn’t show up on the Fox News Channel’s post-game show to share his impressions of the mayhem.
He was hardly the sharp-edged interrogator viewers have come to expect; instead, as Trump spewed a geyser of lies, insults and fantasies concerning his handling of the pandemic, Biden’s son Hunter, and his supposedly brilliant negotiations with Big Pharma to lower drug prices, Wallace bleated “Mr. President! Mr. President!” unheeded, and occasionally threw up his hands in a gesture of defeat.
At one point, when Biden asked to have a question repeated as Trump ranted on, Wallace commiserated, “I’m having a little trouble myself—I can’t remember in all this rambling…”
Tapper—himself an experienced moderator of presidential debates but, in fairness, nothing like this one—pointed out that Wallace let Trump, the bully-boy of the night, endlessly interrupt a comparatively well-behaved Biden (though he did call Trump “a clown” more than once, and asked the president at one point, “Will you shut up, man?”), while Wallace repeatedly allowed Trump to blow past the agreed-upon two minute limit.
Wallace “didn’t have control of the debate stage for much of the evening,” Tapper said. “He didn’t remind the president he was violating the rules until one hour and 13 minutes into the debate.”
Indeed, the brawl sent such a terrible message to the world about the state of democracy in the United States—“an embarrassment,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said—that Blitzer predicted that the next two scheduled might never be held, and the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has been running these events without incident since 1988, will be forced to cancel them.
Amid the torrent of criticism of Wallace’s performance, NPR’s David Folkenflik was perhaps the most charitable.
“Chris Wallace is an exceptionally capable moderator and questioner,” he tweeted, praising his “quite relevant” questions but acknowledging that “So far he’s been stymied, bullied and steam rolled.”
Folkenflik added: “This isn’t his night.”
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