“Would You Shut Up, Man?”: A Reflection on the First 2020 Presidential Debate

The first Presidential Debate for the 2020 Presidential Election between President Donald J. Trump and Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was a chaotic and disjointed event characterized by an incoherent barrage of insults and interruptions.  Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News failed to stop the candidates from speaking over each other for long periods of the 90-minute debate and was unable to produce a fruitful, policy-based debate. Below are the key moments and takeaways from the first Presidential Debate.

The Supreme Court and Judge Amy Coney Barrett

With the first question of the debate, the candidates were asked to state their opinions on when it would be proper to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Trump unrepentantly insisted that his party has the right to quickly confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, saying, “We won the election, elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House, and we have a phenomenal nominee.” The President continued touting the Judge’s outstanding qualifications and reviews as further evidence supporting her confirmation. Unsurprisingly, former Vice President Biden disagreed with President Trump’s logic. After being deeply involved in the 2016 rejection of Judge Merrick Garland by Senate Republicans, the Democratic nominee firmly held in his debate remarks that, since votes were already being cast for the election, any confirmation would have to wait. Then, Vice President Biden quickly pivoted to the implications of a Supreme Court with Judge Barrett, noting the high likelihood that the Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, would rule against the Affordable Care Act. Later, in one of Vice President Biden’s most controversial moments, Mr. Wallace asked the former vice president if he would consider packing the court if Senate Republicans confirm Judge Barrett, to which the Democratic nominee responded, “Whatever position I take, that’ll become the issue…I’m not going to answer the question.” In 2016, the Supreme Court was a massive issue for many voters, and it appears that in 2020 that trend will continue.

Trump Portrays Biden as Far Left on Healthcare

One of President Trump’s tactics in this debate was to paint Vice President Biden as a far-left socialist who is out of touch with everyday Americans. This played out early in the debate on healthcare, when President Trump accused Vice President Biden of wanting to take away the private insurance of 180 million Americans and aligning with Senator Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan. Biden calmly dispelled the notion that his public option extension of the Affordable Care Act would end private insurance and emphatically denied the second of these attacks, responding “I am the Democratic Party right now” and “I beat Bernie Sanders. I beat him a whole hell of a lot. I’m here facing you.” Biden then went on the attack against his opponent, stating that President Trump “has no plan for healthcare. He sends out wishful thinking, he has executive orders that have no power, he hasn’t lowered drug costs for anybody, he’s been promising a health care plan since he got elected. He has none…And the fact is, this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

On the Coronavirus Pandemic

Vice President Biden began this segment placing blame for the public health crisis at President Trump’s feet, accusing him of not having a plan, not being straightforward with the American people, and mismanaging the crisis. President Trump responded by blaming China and the “fake news” media. Then, in a sequence that can only be characterized as an unhinged shouting match, President Trump compared his handling of coronavirus to Vice President Biden’s handling of the swine flu and H1N1, claiming that Biden would have allowed many more Americans to die. Later, President Trump attempted to distance himself from his comments about injecting bleach as a potential solution to the coronavirus and mocked Vice President Biden for his mask wearing and socially distanced campaign events. These comments from President Trump were improper and unpresidential, though unsurprising given the history of how the president has publicly spoken about the virus.

Race, Policing, and White Supremacy

Later in the debate, after a period of incomprehensible crosstalk between the candidates, moderator Chris Wallace moved the discussion to the topic of race in America. Vice President Biden began, stating “It’s about equity and equality. It’s about decency. It’s about the Constitution. And we have never walked away from trying to quite require equity for everyone, equality for the whole America.” Biden then moved away from his uplifting, hopeful message about realizing the ideal future for America to attack President Trump for his “very fine people on both sides” remarks after Charlottesville and his usage of tear gas on peaceful protestors outside of the White House for a photo-op at a local church. President Trump quickly retorted with a criticism of the Democratic nominee’s key role in the 1994 crime bill, which disproportionately affected the black community. This sent the candidates into a long back and forth about peaceful protests and law and order. Perhaps the most notable moment from the night came when Chris Wallace asked President Trump to denounce white supremacy. After the Republican Nominee attempted to deflect the question to criticize “left-wing” violent groups, Chris Wallace intervened and asked his question again, with Vice President Biden suggesting that the president denounce the far right hate group called the Proud Boys. President Trump then responded that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” After these remarks, the group’s members were seen expressing excitement on social media and began selling merchandise with the phrase. This refusal to condemn white supremacy was itself widely condemned after the debate.

Key Takeaways:

President Trump Lost, but Biden Hardly Won

President Trump’s strategy was clearly to rattle former Vice President Biden through interruptions and insults, after which Vice President Biden frequently fired back. In fact, the president interrupted 10 times during a single answer given by Vice President Biden, and it was reported that throughout the entire debate, Trump interrupted Biden a total of 73 times. The former Vice President also did not shy away from interrupting his opponent, albeit with a much lower frequency.  In addition to the interruptions, the debate was marred by petulant, childish insults, which were often personal. In a particularly low moment, President Trump attacked the Vice President’s intelligence, saying “Did you use the word smart?…You graduated, either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me, don’t ever use that word.” Vice President Biden hurled insults of his own, throughout the debate calling the president a “clown” and a “fool,” while later exclaiming, “Would you shut up, man?” President Trump was often the aggressor in this debate, and as such, he was most responsible for the chaotic, shambolic nature of the debate. This contribution to the disgraceful nature of the debate, combined with his controversial, and often false, statements, made him the clear loser. Conversely, while Vice President Biden did not have an excellent performance on Tuesday, he importantly demonstrated that he possesses the ability and stamina required to stand up to President Trump for the entire 90 minutes.

America Lost, Too

Presidential debates are often espoused as having a dual purpose: to introduce the American people to the personality and policies of the candidates, and to serve as a real life “School-House Rock” lesson. Point being that these debates do not simply have an electoral purpose, as they are widely considered to be mechanisms for raising the level of public knowledge and discourse. If any single American came away from this debate with a greater grasp of complex public policy issues, it would be shocking. Instead of clearly, concisely explaining their policy positions, the purpose of these policies, and why their position is correct, the two Presidential nominees resorted to personal insults, petty name calling, and yelling at each other. Not only did this debate lack any substance, but it also was embarrassing for the United States, as we found a new low for our public political discourse.

Full Debate Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8Z9Kqhrh5c

Full Debate Transcript Link: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/09/30/presidential-debate-read-full-transcript-first-debate/3587462001/

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