An overview and analysis of the first presidential debate
Labeled “a mess” by viewers, the first 2020 presidential debate was full of interruptions, name-calling, and outright bullying as moderator Wallace struggled to gain control.
The first of three presidential debates saw President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden finally argue in person rather than on Twitter at Case Western Reserve College. Fox News hosted the debate with Fox News Sunday Anchor Christopher Wallace serving as moderator for its 90 minutes, duration which allowed 15 minutes for each segment, and two minutes each to respond to each question. With safety precautions controlled by the Cleveland Clinic, the scene was far from ordinary. The small number of viewers seated in the audience sat socially distanced, making the venue appear empty, and the debate began without the traditional shaking of hands. Although the 2016 elections’ presidential debates did away with this tradition out of disdain for each candidate, some say this lack of formal respect was what kicked off the chaotic night full of disrespect.
The first segment discussed replacing Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat in the Supreme Court, specifically by President Trump’s top pick Judge Amy Cohen Barrett. Trump’s argument for “filling the seat” with Barrett was flattery and false claims that both liberals and conservatives support her selection. He also argued that he should be allowed to fill the seat because his four years of administration are not yet over, seeming to discredit that the U.S. being in the process of a new election is yielding his say to the next judge. Former Vice President Biden leaned into this argument, expressing that because the election is occurring, the “American people should decide” which next administration should fill the seat. Biden also backtracked on claims that Judge Barrett was “a very fine person” by arguing against her character and claiming she would repeal abortion and the Affordable Care Act, though Trump argued she would not repeal abortion. These first 20 minutes of the debate were chaotic, with President Trump repeatedly interrupting both Biden and Wallace and tensions rising. Only 18 minutes into this debate, Biden told Trump, “Will you shut up, man?” Such name-calling and disrespect were left uncontrolled by Wallace and set the stage for further discussions.
The second segment of the debate discussed each candidate’s healthcare plans. Trump took a hard stance against Biden’s plan with false claims that it was the same as Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan and would force 180 million people to concede their private insurance for a public option. He mostly defended his record of not establishing a healthcare plan throughout his four years in office because it took a long time to get rid of the individual mandate. When Wallace directly asked for Trump’s healthcare plan, Trump claimed, as he has since on Twitter, he was being tagged by both Biden and Wallce. “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s okay; I’m not surprised,” Trump said and claimed his plan would lower drug prices similar to how he did for the average monthly cost of prescription drugs in the year 2019 until August, though the following rise remained lower on average than under President Obama, which was acknowledged by Wallace. Biden, who was often interrupted, only defended false claims against his plan, saying that only people qualified for Medicaid would be automatically enrolled in his plan and he would not eliminate private insurance. He responded to Trump’s claim that Democrats “want to go socialist medicine,” by saying, “My party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party. The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders.”
In the next segment, Biden refused to answer whether he would end the filibuster and pack the court, as some democrats have voice favor of. “Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue,” Biden responded. “The issue is, the American people should speak. You should go out and vote,” Biden continued against particularly aggressive interruptions of “are you going to pack the court?” from Trump. The exchange was perhaps the most heated of the night, with only a short discussion and no direct answer from Biden, who responded to Trump’s interruptions with one of the most popular quotes of the night, “I can’t get a word in with this clown.”
The next segment asked candidates how they would handle the coronavirus. Biden seemed most comfortable debating this question and attacked Trump’s high number of fatalities despite the claim that Trump “knew” the fatalities to come if the country remained open “back in February,” alluding to recordings of Trump from Bob Woodward — and, perhaps, appealing to former Republican/Lincoln voters, who have been running attack ads with the headline “Trump knew.” Trump argued that COVID-19 precautions have been too extreme and voiced his desire to reopen the country, specifically schools, by gesturing to mental health reasons. Trump did, however, show off his mask in between calling Biden unintelligent and making fun of how often Biden wears a mask. He also claimed vaccines would be readily available “faster than” health experts in his administration believe, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as Trump claimed to get his data from “drug-makers,” including Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, themselves.
When questioned about the different sizes of the candidates’ rallies, Trump emphasized that they were being held outside, though they had no social distancing and many attendees did not wear face masks. “So far, we have had no problem whatsoever. It’s outside that’s a big difference,” Trump said, neglecting to mention the few rallies he has held indoors. Immature bullying ensued, with Trump claiming Biden’s rallies were small not because they adhered to health guidelines but because “no one wants to hear what he has to say.” Biden argued that Trump’s large rallies are “totally irresponsible” and that he does not care about him spreading coronavirus to his supporters: “He never worried about you. He’s not worried about the people out there breathing.”
The next question addressed the economy’s quicker-than-expected recovery and how candidates would contribute to it if elected. Trump’s response argued for reopening the country and blamed China for the economy’s decrease, promoting American exceptionalism. Biden argued that a nationwide shutdown is necessary due to states still seeing increasing numbers, which Trump blamed on “blue states.” Biden also claimed that the economy is only thriving for the wealthy and argued for economic reform, alluding to taxes and minimum wage.
Wallace then questioned Trump about the New York Times’ report that Trump only paid $750 in income taxes, urging him to not discuss his other tax payments. Trump responded that the claim was “fake news” and claimed he paid “millions of dollars in income tax.” Biden interrupted saying “show us your tax returns” and Trump claimed he would “as soon as it’s finished.” Biden claimed he would increase the federal income tax from 21 percent to 28 percent if elected and claimed the Obama administration handed Trump a booming economy. Trump rebuked this, falsely claiming that Obama had the slowest recession recovery since the 1920s, and boasted his economic plan for divergence from China’s manufacturing.
The next segment covered the issue of racism, specifically of violence from radical groups. Biden argued that Trump encourages division through far-right extremist violence, referencing Trump calling Charlottesville’s KKK “fine people” and claimed Trump tear-gassed peaceful protestors outside White House to get a “photo op with the bible,” which the church’s bishop called a disgrace. He also mentioned the issue of race as highlighted by the pandemic, which disproportionately affects people of color. Trump rebutted that Biden was racist, claiming that Biden called black citizens “superpredators,” though the alluded term was actually used by Hilary Clinton in 1996. Still, Biden did indeed warn of “predators on our streets” who he described as “beyond the pale,” likely referencing black citizens, in his 1993 crime bill speech.
Trump argued that racial violence was an issue of the “radical left” and argued that police should protect “law and order” without reform. “Law and order” was perhaps Trump’s biggest quote of the night as he repeated it multiple times, seeming to portray Biden as a radical leftist. Trump said, “They’ve got you wrapped around their finger, Joe, to the point where you don’t want to say anything about law and order,” despite Biden’s plan to increase funding for law enforcement reform. Surprisingly, Biden was not given time to respond to these claims, as the debate moved on to discussing Black Lives Matter protests.
Biden seemed to rebuke Trump’s portrait of him as a radical leftist by saying he would increase funding for the police, contradicting Trump’s claim, and have psychiatric assistance for de-escalating civilian-police conflict. He also said not all cops are bad, though he pushes for holding the “bad apples” accountable, referring to the Breonna Taylor case. Trump suggested that none of the BLM protests are peaceful, but instead claimed that violence ensued at peaceful protests: “What is peaceful protest? When they run through the middle of the town and burn your stores and kill people all over the place?” Trump further blamed democrat states for record-high homicides during his administration, citing Chicago as an example, though he did not account for the city’s population. He also boasted his support from law enforcement groups. Biden claimed Trump “dog whistles” white supremacists to protect the suburbs and said, in one of his most memorable lines from the night: “What really is a threat to the suburbs and their safety is his failure to deal with COVID. They’re dying in the suburbs. His failure to deal with the environment; they’re being flooded; they’re being burned out because [of] his refusal to do anything. That’s why the suburbs are in trouble.”
Wallace then asked Biden whether he personally called the Democratic mayor of Portland or the Oregon governor, or called for the national guard to stop “days and months of violence in Portland.” Biden deflected the question, saying it is not his role since he does not hold public office, and said, “They can in fact take care of it if [Trump would] just stay out of the way.” Trump argued that military force was necessary to quelch the riots, bringing up a story of a man who died in riots, then claiming U.S. Marshals “took care of business.”
Wallace then asked Trump, in one of the highlights of the night, whether he would condemn white supremacists and right-wing militia groups like those that gathered and killed in Kenosha. Trump proudly said he would condemn them, though he had to ask Wallace to repeat who specifically he would condemn, and did not directly do so until pushed by Wallace and Biden, who answered, “the Proud Boys.” “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said in a mixed message — his most notable quote from the debate. He quickly followed this up with claims that radical leftists and Antifa, short for anti-fascists, which Biden interrupted was an ideology not an organization, caused the violence at protests, saying, “but I’ll tell you what. Someone’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem,” despite evidence of right-wing militia threatening protestors
During the subject of race, Wallace questioned Trump about his executive order that removed recent race reform from laws affecting organization management, such as removing racial sensitivity training from schools and workplaces. Trump claimed racial sensitivity training is “racist” and a radical revolution in schools that is left-wing propaganda. When Wallace asked Trump to elaborate on why the training is racist, Trump said, “it teaches people to hate our country.” Biden argued that racial sensitivity training is necessary to teach empathy and that there is racism in America on an individual level that requires training to prevent. In an odd moment, Biden also suggested there is discrimination even in the suburbs, which he experienced as a Catholic.
Trump repeatedly attacked Biden’s sons throughout the debate, capitalizing on unverified claims that a partnership co-founded by Hunter Biden received a $3.5 million payment from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, as was written in a recent report from Senate Republicans, though facts remain undisclosed and it is unclear whether Hunter Biden got the $3.5 million and how much stakes his partners had if the partnership received it. On one mention of this following the previous discussion, Wallace commented, “The American people would rather hear about more substantive issues” before introducing the new topic: environmental legislation.
Trump has rolled back environmental legislation and removed the U.S.from the Paris Peace Accords so most of his time was spent defending his record with vague expressions of liking clean air and cars. He also stated he would plant “a billion trees,” despite previously promising to participate in the UN Trillion Trees Initiative in February, though experts say there’s no evidence that the project is underway in the USA. Trump proposed balancing environmental and corporate interests. He also claimed the Paris Peace accords hurt the U.S. by causing job loss and allowing other countries to pollute more than was allowed without punishment. Trump further claimed climate change was not the cause of the west coasts’ wildfires, blaming California state management for built-up debris on the forests’ floors, despite many of the forests being federally managed. He argued that environmental reform like that proposed by Biden is expensive, claiming it’d cost $100 trillion, though Biden claimed it would cost $2 trillion, and falsely equated it with the Green New Deal. Biden rebuked this claim, saying he does not support the Green New Deal when asked, but he supports “the Biden plan.” Biden argued his plan would pay for its creation of electric car “charging stations” and weatherize buildings by creating renewable energy jobs and tax incentives. This segment was especially filled with interruptions from Trump, who Wallace told, “I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.”
The last segment of the night focused on the election’s integrity. Biden made a strong impression by speaking uninterrupted into the camera urging viewers to vote and providing simplified instructions for how to vote. Biden also reinforced widely-verified claims to the integrity of mail-in ballots. Trump reinforced fairly discredited claims that “unsolicited” mail-in ballots would be corrupted, citing an unverified story that many republican ballots were thrown “into a river.” On the question of a fair transition of power, Trump claimed that his administration’s transition was corrupted by Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump said, “they came after me trying to do a coup, coming after me spying on my campaign,” despite the 434-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz that concluded no probe spied on Trump. He also voiced support for concluding the election the night of and stated that it would be impossible to count all the “80 million” ballots as Biden advocates for. Both said they would trust the Supreme Court to determine whether fraud occurred in the election.
In Wallace’s final question of the night, he asked whether the candidates would encourage their supporters to not create civil unrest during the vote-counting, which may take weeks after the election date. Trump “answered” by asking viewers to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” which some viewers believed encouraged voter intimidation, and restating unverified claims of a dishonest ballot count. Biden answered by arguing ballots need to be counted after election day. Only Biden explicitly said he would support the outcome of the election.
As Wallace voiced the event’s concluding remarks, the debate was “interesting,” to say the least, but, as far as viewers were concerned, it was “train wreck.” Some viewers have even called for future debates to be canceled, as the event’s frequent name-calling, interrupting, and unverified or outright false claims have fostered anti-American sentiment among viewers. Republican strategist Russ Schriefer expressed similar opposition to further debates, asking, “Seriously — if there weren’t any more debates, would that be a problem? Anyone served by this mess?” Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate, shared his disappointment for the country: “America was the world’s leading democracy. Then this happened. Now what?” A CBS poll showed 69 percent of viewers felt annoyed by the debates, followed by 31 percent entertained, with informed (17 percent) falling even below pessimistic (19 percent).
As for who the winner was, it depends. Considering that U.S. viewers ranked “entertained” as the second most popular metric for the feelings about the debate, the way we determine a “winner” is shifting from years past. Audience members, typically Trump supporters, may believe the winner was who got the most words in — and Trump certainly did, considering moderator Wallace could not halt his interruptions, which allowed Trump to get one minute and ten seconds more speaking time than Biden. Trump even caused Biden to snap, calling Trump names like “clown” and “the worst president we’ve ever had.” However, in years past the debate winner has been recognized as the one who kept their cool. Although Biden briefly snapped a few times throughout the night, he was the only one who directly addressed the American people without issue and seemed to hold back from returning Trump’s animosity, even laughing while Trump fired shots at him.
The Quaker Campus’ Instagram poll found 93 percent of voters thought Biden won the debate, while only 7 percent thought Trump won. Commenters mentioned the debate being “a mess,” which left the victory uncertain.
Still, we saw Trump on full display tonight with his usual self-congratulating manner, propelling conspiracies, using anti-leftist and anti-Chinese rhetoric, and, most apparent, steamrolling. While Trump’s steamrolling may have made him seem like a winner to some, Trump is not likely to gain any more supporters, especially amongst suburban women, a key demographic he has been losing. Another reason Trump may have seemed to come out a winner was a lack of fact-checking for fraudulent claims, for which Trump has been accused of committing by news sources like the New York Times, Los AngelesTimes, and BBCNews.
Most controversial, however, were Trump’s words. When Trump did not explicitly condemn white supremacist militia groups, specifically telling the Proud Boys a mixed message to “stand back and stand by,” the Proud Boys took as an approval to “deal with” protestors, leftists, and Antifa. But with debate over what Antifa itself is, conservatives have seemed to label all leftists “Antifa.” Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs said the president “basically said to go f—k [Antifa] up” and “told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA… well, sir! We’re ready!” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called President Trump’s answer “astonishing” in a tweet. Today, however, Trump said, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are” and directly told the group to stand down. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” he said.
Trump’s response to election integrity was also under fire for spreading misinformation about ballot corruption, encouraging fear, and using similar rhetoric to dictatorships. Professor of Law Rosa Brooks at Georgetown Law School, who organized exercises in June to identify potential risks to the 2020 election and transition, said, “His rhetoric is dangerously and profoundly anti-democratic,” according to the New York Times. “It’s the kind of language you might expect from a dictator, not from the supposed leader of the free world. His job should be to unite Americans and foster stability. Instead, Trump’s comments increase the risk of political violence — which is shockingly irresponsible from the president of the United States.”
Biden, on the other hand, kept his cool for the most part, though in previous election years even his few insults to Trump may have seemed out of place on stage. Biden has since capitalized on Trump’s unclear message to white supremacists, calling for the Proud Boys to “cease and desist.” The former Vice President seemed more likely to gain news voters, especially centrists, with his denouncement of farther left ideology, including defunding the police and the more radical ACAB slogan, saying, “the vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women.” This may gain him older, more moderate Democrat voters, but may also repel young voters. The question remains, who will actually go out and vote? If older voters decide to stay in or Trump blocks counting for mail-in ballots, such as through the recent new leadership of the post office, Biden can lose votes, especially in young people, as usual, vote less frequently.