The first presidential debate took place on September 29th, 2020. It was held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Fox News hosted the debate, with moderator Chris Wallace taking the lead.
The two candidates on stage were current President Donald Trump (GOP) and former Vice President Joe Biden (Democratic.)
As the closing lights settled in on the debate stage, members of our staff settled in to discuss the debate in full. So, the first Presidential Roundtable begins.
Last night reinforced why I got into this race: We are in a battle for the soul of this nation — and it’s a battle we must win.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 1, 2020
Joanna: With the passing of RBG, the two candidates started the night off by talking about SCOTUS nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Most Americans currently do not want to appoint a SCOTUS until after the election. Did Trump do enough to justify Coney Barrett’s nomination?
Mia: Trump did make a valid point that he is elected for four years and not three, a fact that I have to admit is accurate. Although his term is almost up, he does still have the right to nominate someone as a replacement. However, just because Coney Barrett is nominated that doesn’t mean she is going to become the judge. The Senate still has to approve her before she is officially appointed. It is a lengthy process before she is officially appointed.
Joanna: Considering what happened to Merrick Garland back in 2016, along with several Republican senator’s commitments to “not appoint in the last year,” is the GOP allowed to backtrack?
Josh Hawley at Senate Judiciary says he believes Amy Coney Barrett’s record indicates she believes Roe v Wade is an act of “judicial imperialism.” Hawley: “I do believe Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s record bears that out.” Trump at the debate argued to Biden her views are not known
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 1, 2020
Helen: President Trump continued to use the same talking points that his administration has been utilizing since the announcement of the Barrett selection. The Trump campaign obviously assumed this would be a hot point of discussion tonight, and his initial points were some of the most canned answers of the night, aside from mentioning University of Notre Dame a great deal. Referencing Justice Ginsburg’s statement was a punchy opening, but it did nothing to disprove the simple fact that the Senate blocked President Obama’s nomination with even more time. He did bring up the Supreme Court in the election portion of the night, which did more to explain his rush than it did to justify anything. Overall, this was Trump’s calmest moment of the night, but it did little to introduce or support new claims.
Mia: Oh Mitch McConnell. This is purely a political and partisan move to keep a primarily conservative Supreme Court. We have to remember in 2016, Obama was President and McConnell was doing everything in his power to prevent Obama from passing legislation and any kind of power. McConell’s statement then to his desire now to accepting the appointment of Coney Barrett doesn’t expressly show that the GOP is allowed to backtrack. It shows that partisan politics and who holds the most power is unfortunately very important in our political climate.
Biden: "The party is me…I am the Democratic party right now."
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) September 30, 2020
Joanna: Strong points. Onto the next question. As Joe Biden tried to reach across the aisle tonight, he tried to distance himself from the more left-leaning parts of the Democratic party. These measures included telling President Trump that he is the Democratic party, and refuting measures like abolishing private healthcare and refusing to support the Green New Deal. Was this the right move for Biden? What do you think the implications will be?
Mia: Biden detaching himself from the more “radical” part of the party was a mistake. He expressly said multiple times that he is the Democratic Party, what he supports is the Democratic party’s intention. However, that is clearly not true. The young people coming to age for voting have identified themselves strongly as democratic socialists or socialists. Biden negating policies such as private healthcare and the Green New Deal go directly against what these young voters want. They want clear and radical change but Biden’s new plans are not radical enough for the change they desire such as free tuition, healthcare for all, and other policies. By not addressing these radical issues, he may be losing voters or may compel disgruntled citizens not to vote.
Helen: Distancing himself from leftist policies has been Vice President Biden’s go-to move for much of his campaign. Avoiding socialized medicine and the Green New Deal is nothing new for Biden, so this won’t be shocking to those who have long scrutinized him. Biden’s individual policy plans have been well-known to many on the left , though he has been releasing new measures as part of the Biden-Sanders Joint Task Force. This moderacy made it more difficult for Trump to sink his teeth into Biden for “socialism.” Instead, he was forced to look at the Democratic Party and Senator Harris (Biden’s running mate). Biden had to keep insisting that the Party knows who he is and where he stands, which is true. Ultimately Biden pushing back against a progressive image isn’t a massive shock, as his stances on these issues are primarily familiar to those who would have liked him to be further left. This will likely be somewhat frustrating to those who wanted him to continue shifting with the young voices of the party, but won’t provide a revelation. It did, however, allow Biden to appeal to the more Republican voters he’s trying to pull in swing states, which has been a goal of the Biden campaign since its launch.
"I must have said, maybe several tens of thousands of times the importance of wearing masks … If there was an interpretation that I'm not for masks, that's a misinterpretation."
— WIRED (@WIRED) October 1, 2020
Joanna: Solid points, especially considering the support coming from the Lincoln Project and other GOP-converted groups. Definitely a balance he hasn’t really figured out yet. Ok, next question.
COVID-19. From mask wearing to rallies to school reopening, how did this discussion go? Who made the strongest points?
Mia: Well. President Trump definitely wanted to continue his policy on sweeping the talk of COVID under the rug by insisting that vaccines will be coming and released quite soon and that he did a good job with managing the crisis.
Biden did make a point that the number of deaths ( which he estimated to 200 thousand) is immense especially when Trump was aware of the pandemic earlier. Trump did make a fair rebuttal with referencing all the dead military soldiers under Biden’s leadership.
Biden made the strongest points about the importance of being safe, pointing out the inconsistencies of Trump not following the social distancing regulations, and wanting to re-open businesses and economies earlier than recommended. A majority of Americans worry about the virus still and would prefer not to have schools or any public place reopen earlier than it needs to be.
Yet, Trump is correct in the fact that the American people want to reopen.
He also made a good point that Biden does wear his mask a lot and often, making COVID a more political issue between the two candidates.
Helen: The political nature of the US’ handling of the virus, was exemplified here. Biden was comfortable in this section, as he was able to use science to defend his points, but he was slightly rattled by Trump’s continued interjections. Biden was able to have one of his moments where he stared into the camera, as he discussed the serious losses that people around the country are experiencing. Trump sounded defensive, especially compared to how blasé he’s been about the pandemic. Whether it was about his rallies, school openings, the number of deaths, or promised vaccines, there weren’t a lot of new arguments. Trump was using statements that misinformation efforts have been lobbing at to the public for months, including Anthony Fauci’s initial stance on masks, which he has since fully revised. He did try to slam Biden on the handling of H1N1 flu, which was immediately tackled and only reached 12 deaths in 2009 , compared to the climbing 206, 000 deaths since March of 2020. Trump even attempted to mock Biden for wearing a mask.
#US: President Donald Trump calls on the violent militant group the "Proud Boys" to "stand back and stand by" while refusing to condemn white supremacy during the 1st 2020 US presidential debate. (📹@axios) pic.twitter.com/Np23kbrDRf
— Anonymous 👥 (@YourAnonCentral) September 30, 2020
Joanna: I agree, the Swine Flu comparison made little sense in context to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tonight, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy and tried deflecting several questions on the Black Lives Matter movement, among other racial equality issues. He turned a question about Black approval into listing all the law enforcement agencies who endorsed him. At the same time, he claims that he has had the highest Black approval ratings of any GOP president in a long time. What are your thoughts on these issues?
Mia: Trump turning a question about white supremacy and Black Lives Matter to a discussion about patriotism is nothing new.
He has hesitated to call about white supremacists before, and has stood by his belief that Black Lives Matter is responsible for looting, fires, and even death. The maximum number of people who died in the span of Black Lives Matter protests is 19, however, statistics show that over 200 black people are shot by police each year.
Trump’s refusal to discuss race relations goes as far as wanting to alter the history- teaching in schools the “right” history where racism isn’t as discussed as clearly as it is today. He uses this segment of his talk to find an ally in the police and conservative voters who may align their thinking with him.
Helen: “He’s a racist,” was one of Biden’s simplest yet strongest statements of the night. Every time race was brought up, Trump deflected and got angry. Instead of focusing on the rampant violence and white supremacy that’s wreaking havoc on the U.S., Trump was making claims about protests, Antifa and Democrats. Tensions have been high for a long time – whether that’s demonstrated in the terror of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally (2017) or the cries for justice of the Black Lives Matter movement. Each year of the Trump presidency, hate crimes have spiked, and from the beginning of his time in office Trump has shown that he has no issue with who he labels “very fine people.” So, tonight’s refusal to rebuke to these groups was not shocking, since he’s done this before. Still, it should never be forgotten that when presented with the opportunity to openly and simply pass any form of condemnation on white supremacy and white militia groups, on national television, the President of the United States would not do so, instead opting to tell Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” after skirting around the issue with the moderator for a considerable period of time.
Additionally, Trump may claim to have the highest Black approval ratings of any Republican president, but the views of his base on race are even more extreme than in 2016.
Joanna: It was shocking that when presented with a clear cut opportunity, Trump still was unable to call out white supremacy and denounce it.
Trump was in Florida a few weeks ago, where he called himself the “Number One Environmental President.” Did his policies tonight stand up to this? How did Biden perform in climate change?
There's a bullshit frame — pushed by the fossil fuel lobby and the politicians they buy off — that averting climate change is too expensive and a job killer.
— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) September 30, 2020
Mia: Trump gave no clear policies for climate change tonight. He focused solely on leaving the Paris plan due to how it negatively affected businesses that contributed to climate change and how he is slowly accepting that climate change is real. However, all that he positioned himself on this during the debate was on the planting of trees and stating to an extent that climate change is affected by humans.
In his speech that he gave in Florida, he tried to present that environmental cleanliness and the economy were winning in his plan. However, his plan advocates for harmful practices such as fracking and focus solely on economic profit.
Biden also chose a stance on climate change where he detached himself from the radical Green New Deal, but has taken parts of it and added it to his climate proposal. He advocated for getting rid of massive polluter companies but unfortunately did not share enough to properly convey his message, leaving viewers to have to search online.
Helen: Trump is the “number one environmental president” for massive companies that are damaging the planet. His environmental stances have been detrimental, as his administration’s rollbacks have harmed public lands, water and green efforts. The fires raging in California on federal land definitely doesn’t help him either, though he just kept returning to forest management. Biden didn’t really lean into this damage, outside of the Paris Climate Accord.
Trump’s main goal was to avoid agreeing to the reality of Climate Change, as he moved through the topic almost perfunctorily. The Democratic party platform cut its demand to end fossil fuel subsidies (the platform Biden spent the night insisting he had the most influence over) and Biden’s initial plan was more focused on the distant future. Still, while Biden is no Al Gore candidate, his stances on environmental issues have improved. His recent plans are far more extensive and effective. Biden spent the entire primary saying he didn’t support the Green New Deal was still fielding questions about this tonight.
Joanna: How was Chris Wallace? Along those lines, how was the overall atmosphere of the debate, from the audience to the interrupting? What could’ve been done differently?
Mia: Chris Wallace did a fair job at moderating. It definitely felt as if he was trying his best not to be partisan and gave equally challenging questions to each person. However, I believe he could have found a better way to manage the two candidates when they squabbled over each other instead of letting it become more of an entertainment viewing than a political debate. Due to the pandemic, the debate was set up as well as it could with social distancing and limited people visible. The only difference that should have been addressed is how he allowed Biden and Trump to interrupt on each other’s time and debate each other without him properly moderating.
Helen: Chris Wallace was trying to organize a bit of a hurricane, in his defense. He attempted to grill Trump on issues but was disregarded. The style of the debate was pushed back against, as disagreements over the rules led to moments bickering. Wallace tried to reign in the stage during moments where discussions over the Affordable Care Act turned ugly or Trump was shouting at Biden about his sons, but was primarily unsuccessful in these efforts. It’s not entirely clear what could have been done to avoid this, as it seemed things soured pretty soon after that introductory, “How you doing man?” from Biden. Wallace even yelled, argued with Trump and shared enduring looks with Biden throughout the night, which didn’t necessarily assert himself as the person in control of the situation. The night’s ending was also somewhat anticlimactic (it appeared Trump was still working to goad Biden on even in the last few moments). Overall, the tension and chaos was not solely Wallace’s fault, but it was palpable.
Joanna: Chris Wallace is one of the more level-headed reporters, but even he couldn’t contain the rupture that occurred tonight. Onto our final question:
Trump is already behind in the polls. Coming into this debate, the majority of Americans said they expected him to thrive. Did he? On that note, let’s also talk about personal attacks (esp. Hunter Biden) and, if you want, 2020 vs 2016.
With all this information, who won? Why?
CNN instant poll:
Who won the debate?
Joe Biden 60%
Donald Trump 28%
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) September 30, 2020
Mia: If I had to choose a winner, I would say Joe Biden. He was more articulate than he has ever been on stage, referenced clearly statistics and facts to support his arguments, and only rolled in the mud with Trump once. When Trump brought up his deceased son and his current son’s addiction, that was truly the time in the debate where he became emotional and lost his temperament. Other than that and his continuous interruptions and debates during Trump’s time, he was a good candidate on stage.
Trump did not bring up any direct facts to his campaign or the debate and instead chose to poke holes in Biden’s statements. This was a good strategy because Biden has been accused of being absent-minded or forgetful, yet this tactic only worked a few times. Trump did not make good moves to embracing voters during this debate, warning them against mail-in ballots, reiterating his police support, and the growing concern that Trump will not accept a loss.
Helen: 2016 offered moments that could be rewatched with a grimace but slight amusement, like the whole Ken Bone situation. Tonight there was more of a sense of panic across the nation. In 2016 Trump paced around behind Secretary Clinton, and she was seemingly unable to lash out in the way Biden was able to do so. In 2020, Trump came in with the intention to ambush Biden, and he acted on his strategy.
Joe Biden left almost every Democratic Debate as some form of loser or simply a survivor, but tonight his performance may have scored him a win, if a victor has to be selected. Biden was able to speak to the public directly, staring forward at the camera and visibly trying to focus himself. He reached out to people at home throughout the debate with a lot of eye contact, including a moment sparked by Trump cutting him off in the middle of speaking about his late son Beau in order to argue about Hunter Biden. This jarring moment from Trump did offer Biden one of the more powerful moments of the night (though it was moved past quite quickly), particularly as the US reels with an intensifying opioid crisis, “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem… I’m proud of my son.” It was expected that Trump would come in and try to limit Biden’s speaking time, but Biden held up against this relentless barrage relatively comfortably, though he did snap and cut Trump off as well. This worked against the “sleepy Joe” play that the Trump camp has been running, which is a victory.
Unfortunately, there was indeed some malarkey.
Joanna: Thank you for reading our Presidential Debate Coverage. Before we end this roundtable, our staff handed the win to Biden, with 100% of the vote.
Joanna Hou is a Politics and Books writer at the magazine, as well as a social media intern. She served as the moderator for this debate
Mia Boccher is a Social Justice and Political writer at the magazine.
Helen Ehrlich is a Politics and Music writer at the magazine. She is also the Co-Social Media Manager.
Featured image via CNN @31:25