October’s Not-So-Presidential Debate

“Honestly, it wasn’t a debate.”

Senior Claudia Ballen shared these words in reference to the first presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Amid the constant interruptions and the refusals to answer the moderator’s questions, democratic and civil discourse was not demonstrated by either side. Consequently, many voters felt as though they learned nothing about the candidates’ policies. While this may be the case, the American people most definitely should remember this debate. Here’s why.

To begin with, the sheer dishonesty and inaccuracy of Trump’s remarks were telling. “If we were to base the performance on the truth of their rhetoric, Trump would lose by a long shot,” Claudia said. “He lied more times than fact checkers can count.” When it came to the pandemic, Trump’s words were misleading and often baseless. He claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci “said very strongly, ‘masks are not good,’ Then he changed his mind, he said, ‘masks, good.’” While there was initial concern that the general use of masks would leave limited supply of personal protective equipment for doctors and hospital workers, in saying this, Trump implied the effectiveness of masks is still up for debate. That’s a lie. Dr. Fauci himself has said on various occasions that “if you look at the scientific data, the masks clearly work.” In contrast, Biden grounded his arguments in facts. He frequently said things like “trust science” and “masks save lives,” to which Trump called Biden “stupid.” In light of this, Biden said, “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”

These insults were another key difference between the candidates’ performances. Trump attacked Biden personally, further evading discussion of policy. Arguably the most notable personal attack was when Trump said Joe Biden’s son “got thrown out of the military, thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use.” In response, Biden detailed his son’s battle with addiction, looked into the camera, and asked to keep their own families out of the debate. Claudia noted, “Personal attacks, altering of the truth/fact, and refusing to condemn white supremacy or agree to a peaceful transfer of power, and more, made for an unpleasant viewing experience.”

Latin senior Rashail Wasim, who serves as an editor of Discourses, Latin’s political magazine, said, “The personal attacks made it hard to understand what each candidate stood for.”

If their behavior during the debate was a symbol of their campaign strategies, the candidates could not be taking more divergent paths to Election Day. “Donald Trump behaved much like he did in the 2016 debate, acting aggressive and confrontational,” Rashail said. “That strategy worked against Hillary Clinton because a large portion of the country despises her, but they don’t feel the same way about Biden.” For reference, Biden is currently polling far beyond Clinton ever did even at her peak. Clinton’s polling average was in the low 40s, whereas Biden’s average is in the 50s.

Additionally, although this strategy may have worked for him in the past, Trump is not the challenger in this election; he is the incumbent. “Second-term elections are referendums on the current President,” Rashail said. To that end, one would think that Trump would have been defending his last four years in office, yet instead he was on the offensive. Therefore, many viewers found his demeanor and behavior throughout the debate to be that of a bully and not of a president. In contrast, Rashail said, “Joe Biden generally deferred to the moderator and let the President speak when it was his turn, making the VP seem more dignified than his opponent.”

Claudia expressed a similar sentiment. “Trump tried to take advantage of Biden’s stutter and frequently talked over him, just to appear more dominant,” she said.
Although Trump received most of the criticism for his demeanor, at certain points Biden fell victim to Trump’s trap. He called the president a “clown” and famously said to Trump, “Will you shut up, man?” Cara Gallagher, who teaches American Politics, said she felt as though both candidates went too far. “Both [sides] seemed to be looking for the lowest points that they could find,” she said.

Biden proved he could stand up to bullies—he called Trump “the worst president America has ever had” and deemed Trump “unpresidential.” Biden confirmed he would not be walked over, but it still “felt like a race to the bottom,” Ms. Gallagher said.

Most voters will say the first presidential debate did not change the course of the election in the slightest. Nothing new regarding either of the candidates’ policies were discussed. Most questions asked were hardly answered. Even so, both Biden and Trump showed Americans how they would lead the nation if elected—Trump with lies and repeated insults, and Biden with facts and only the occasional slight.