We are not supposed to talk about this: First Debate

Luther Abel – Columnist

    If ever you wanted to know what a bare-knuckle fighting league would look like in a nursing home, all you would have to do was tune into this first presidential debate. From the cottonmouth to the stammering and the “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” it was a reminder that democracy is hardly ever pretty. The Greeks of yore, assembling on the Pnyx, would undoubtedly have recognized the format, even if the shockingly white teeth of the debaters would have unsettled them.

    For President Trump, his best moments were in the beginning. He made a solid defense of why the glorious Amy Coney Barrett should be admitted to the Supreme Court, and his initial salvos against Biden were both amusing and generally accurate. 

    However, as the night wore on, he devolved into an actual wreck. This was not a total surprise, as sitting presidents generally have a bad first outing during their re-election campaign — see Obama in 2012 vs. Romney or Reagan in ‘84 — but he really had some doozies. 

    The worst moment for Trump was when Chris Wallace of Fox News — a solid journalist who did his best with an ofttimes belligerent duo — asked him to denounce white supremacy. Trump said he would deflect to the destruction wrought by far-left extremists and then, when goaded by Biden to denounce white supremacy, balked. It was deeply unpleasant and unnecessary and provides ample ammunition to his opponents on the matter of race relations. 

    His second misstep was when asked, “Will you accept the results of the election?” — to which Biden quickly said he would — Trump went on a diatribe about mail-in voting, ballots in wastepaper bins and keeping a close eye on the polling locations. He seems incapable of explaining the difference between universal mail-in balloting — all eligible adults automatically receiving a ballot, irrespective of if they requested one or not — and absentee voting — where the voter requests a ballot. 

    Universal balloting is, indeed, likely to be liable to some flaws, as the scale of it would be obscene, and the opportunities for ballot harvesting — the use of activists to “incentivize” or “convince” otherwise non-voters to vote — would be ample. He made no distinction between the two and ended up sounding confused at best. 

    As for Biden, the meme “They had us in the first half, I’m not gonna lie” would be a fitting description of this debate from the Biden campaign’s perspective. President Trump was aggressive and obstreperous in every remark made after his defense of the nomination of Barrett, landing some blows early while former Vice President Biden appeared dazed and bumbling. 

    The best example of Joe’s bumble-ous state was when he meandered from Supreme Court nominations to healthcare, to women’s health and on and on. He seemed to really care about something; the viewer just couldn’t be sure what he cared about exactly. His most heinous reply was his obfuscation surrounding whether he would be in favor of packing the Supreme Court. He hemmed and hawed, and it was an ugly non-reply to a simple yes or no question. 

    However, after the first 30 minutes or so, Joe found himself and made some stunningly centrist to center-left claims about American law enforcement and climate change policy proposals. 

    His noting how law enforcement is made up of “mostly good officers, but there are some bad apples” was an impressive departure from the more radical elements within his party who see the police as institutionalized racism and used the acronym ACAB — All Cops Are Bastards/Bad — as a summation of their views. 

    He went on to press back against Trump’s accusation that he, Biden, is in favor of the “Green New Deal,” a wish list of eco-leftist pipedreamery. Biden’s answer to the climate crisis is still cockamamie — with all-but-impossible deadlines coming due in little more than a decade — but it’s a good sight nearer feasibility than what his compatriots have thus far proffered. 

    It seems to me that those who watched the entirety of the debate would find themselves most likely preferring Biden by the end. I think he wrapped up the debate well enough, ironing out his stutters, stops and other vocal flaws and making the right sort of pitch to the average viewer. 

    However, most people are unlikely to watch 90 minutes of a presidential debate, as that sort of masochism is thankfully rare among the American public. Did Trump win the first part, that which most people actually did watch? That I do not know. I find him off-putting, but I think he likely did convince more than he pushed away in those initial sparring sessions. 

Let me know what you thought of the debate at abell@lawrence.edu. Cheers!

Fariba Lale – Columnist

     To call Tuesday’s debate a mess would be an understatement. It was shameful. It was 90 minutes of interruptions and insults and blame. It was 90 minutes that two men, vying for the most powerful political office in our country, chose to spend repeating, “I know you are but what am I?” at their opponent; although, admittedly, one shouted a bit louder than the other. I do not know that I found any of Tuesday night’s remarks surprising, which is, in itself, a little disheartening. But I am going to do my best to parse them here.

     Starting with Biden, he actually performed a bit better than I had expected him to, which is not saying very much, but he definitely had some notable moments. He seemed to be at his strongest when attacking Trump on his failure to effectively handle the pandemic. 

    Especially early on, he really focused in on this and had the numbers to back him up, and there was not any nasty remark that Trump could have made that will undo the damage his decisions on this issue have caused. COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans since the virus was first detected in the States last winter, and cases continue to rise daily. 

    This tragedy is unfolding on Trump’s watch with no end in sight, and all he can do is repeat again and again that everything will be “back to normal” soon. It’ll be over by Easter. 

        It’ll be over by the end of the year. He’s doing a phenomenal job. It is a useless, spineless excuse for leadership. I do not want to give Biden too much credit, though, because one of the reasons this angle lands is that there have not really been any comparable situations with which the Obama administration had to deal. There are not a lot of points from which Biden can effectively attack Trump because his own record often reveals similar issues, but that is not the case here.

    On the flip side, Biden’s focus on Trump meant he, once again, built an anti-Trump case rather than a pro-Biden one. Why is he so bad at explaining his own positions? In retrospect, I wish I would have kept a tally from the beginning, just to see how many questions were actually … answered. I know that is standard politician behavior, but it is still vapid and unnecessary. 

    For example, when Wallace asked whether or not Biden was in favor of either ending the filibuster or packing the Supreme Court, Biden responded with a watery “go vote” statement instead of providing any type of answer. He even said that he would not provide an answer. The status of the Supreme Court is such an important issue that I know a lot of hesitant Biden voters are using it to guide their voting decision, so it seems like a bad time to back out of a question like that. 

    More generally, his positions often appear half-baked like this because they turn out to be awful when stated point-blank. Trump just needs to push him a little bit, accusing him of representing the “radical left” or whatever, and suddenly Biden is trying to prove how right-wing he actually is. Remember when Biden stated that federal funding for cops should be increased by 300 million dollars? That was near the beginning of protests. 

    Tuesday night, we saw this kind of dynamic not only when police funding was discussed but also the Green New Deal and healthcare. The issue is not only that Biden rejects these policies, it is that he rejects them emphatically and jumps at the opportunity to do so. Listen to him when he tells you who he is. 

     He makes a point of condemning protestors for being “violent” and emphasizing that “the vast majority of police are good.” He just keeps saying we need more transparency. What I am hearing is that he does not understand, fundamentally, the systemic nature of the injustices perpetuated by the police force. 

    He is sticking to the narrative that we are just dealing with a few bad apples in a system that overall functions well rather than one that murders its citizens as a matter of policy. That this is his position, amidst all of the pain we have seen over the last few months, is damning. People on the ground are risking their lives to demand change and, I am sorry, but he does not seem to be taking this seriously. 

     Thinking about Trump’s performance, I do not even know where to begin. He was really hanging on to some favorite buzzwords, like “socialist,” “law and order,” “radical left,” etc., but it seems like that is where his strategy started and ended. I know his approach was to overwhelm Biden and try to appear stronger by doing so, but he lied and contradicted himself so often that this just kind of fell apart. 

     Why would you fling the ’94 Crime Bill at Biden and then, in the next breath, accuse him of being too soft on crime? That makes no sense. I think he would have done better in general to focus on Biden’s record if he wanted to tear him down. 

     He mentioned the Crime Bill, and he also brought up protests like those in Ferguson, which happened during Obama’s administration, as sore spots on Biden’s record. But Trump mostly chose to speak in hypothetical scenarios, claiming for example that the coronavirus would have taken two million lives instead of 200,000 if Biden had been president. 

     Unless there is evidence that a Biden administration would have done literally nothing to combat the pandemic, that argument is totally unsubstantiated. Measuring his own success was just as haphazard. Everything he did was phenomenal, and every state that suffered only suffered because it was in the hands of democratic leadership. 

    Just a nonstop blame game. He also failed to condemn the white nationalist Proud Boys group and the violence they have incited, stating instead that they should “stand back and stand by,” among a myriad of racist dog whistles sprinkled throughout the rest of his statements. 

    Trump talked about returning to the core of America and how things like racial sensitivity training are ruining that. Remember what this country was built on, who benefitted and who suffered at their hands. He knows exactly who the audience for this narrative is. 

    It is difficult to determine winners and losers from the shitshow I watched unfold. I want to say that Biden won narrowly, but that was hardly by his own doing. If Trump had not spent so much time arguing with the moderator, this might not have been the case. In terms of policy substance, I heard very little from Biden. 

     I heard very little from Trump as well. I heard a lot of complaining and finger pointing and no leadership whatsoever. I do not know if anyone still watches these debates hoping to learn something about either of the candidates, but they really seemed to be working to make that impossible. Honestly, I think it was a wash overall. 

     Biden did not effectively communicate anything positive about his positions, and he seems to be sticking fast to the goal that “nothing will fundamentally change.” And Trump spent so much time tripping over his own statements that it is difficult to extract much meaning at all from his time on stage, besides the fact that he stands with white supremacists and will continue to propel this country into the abyss in exactly the same ways he has been for the last four years.