If you came into last week’s presidential debate — the first of three — between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden expecting any decorum or mutual respect among the candidates, I can confidently say you emerged from your viewing thoroughly disappointed and perhaps with some fear for the state of our democracy.
If, like me, you begrudgingly tuned in with no expectations from either candidate, but rather a morbid curiosity about just how bad it could be… you, too, were probably disappointed.
That seems to be the theme of this first debate: seemingly every viewer walked away disappointed, in some way, with both candidates, without any new information about either, and without any change of heart or voting intention.
It began with the subject of the Supreme Court. Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asks Trump about his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and in response to the controversy surrounding the nomination, Trump says, “We won the election — we have the right to choose her.” He goes on to mention former President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and states that because Democrats “lost” the previous election, they couldn’t confirm who they wanted.
This isn’t new for Trump. We’ve known for years that he and his Republican cronies view even the fate of the highest court in the country as a consequence of a political game. Reiterating this gave Biden an opening to attack Trump on the hypocrisy of the Republicans’ games. The problem is… he didn’t take it.
Biden spent a few minutes establishing what was at stake should Judge Barrett be confirmed by the Senate, focusing on the Affordable Care Act. He did not mention the potential challenges to the Roe v. Wade decision or the aforementioned Republican hypocrisy. He was also asked by Wallace whether he would consider “packing the court” —adding additional justices — if Republicans were successful in confirming Judge Barrett. Biden refused to commit to that strategy. It was the first of several strategic blunders over the course of the evening for Biden.
Healthcare was the next topic Wallace invoked for debate. Trump immediately went on the attack, accusing Biden of “agreeing” with Bernie Sanders that the United States should adopt “socialized medicine.” Biden counters by saying, “I am the Democratic Party right now” and “I beat Bernie.”
Neither of these help Biden’s case, not just with left-wing voters but the whole electorate as well. Biden seems to ignore the diversity of political views among the Democratic coalition present, especially during this election cycle, while also showing real contempt for leftist voters, who will not vote for a fascist but also dislike him.
In a later segment, Biden does go on the attack: during the debate on race in America, he excoriates Trump for his photo op in front of a church, taken after ordering that peaceful protesters in the area be teargassed. He also dredges up Trump’s comment on the Charlottesville protests from 2017, about “very fine people on both sides.”
It was Biden’s only real, effective offensive of the debate. Unfortunately, it also gave Trump the opportunity to flip the script: he responded to Biden’s attack by criticizing the former Vice President’s involvement in passing the 1994 Crime Bill, which disproportionately affected communities of color. Among a debate-long volley of lies and mistruths, it may have been Trump’s only accurate statement.
It still didn’t really help him in the face of overtly racist remarks made at other points during the debate. Just before the previously-mentioned exchange, Wallace asked Trump about his order to end federal “critical race theory” education — which attempts to view laws and institutions through the lens of race, among other things —to which Trump replied: “I ended it because it was racist. I ended it because it was a radical revolution taking place.”
Biden rightly took issue with that remark, but the tack he took in his response was somewhat troubling, saying, “All these dog whistles don’t work anymore.” Unfortunately, they do, which is why the President continues to employ them: they fire up his base — filled with neo-Nazis and white supremacists —while giving his other, more moderate supporters plausible deniability that they endorse his racism.
I haven’t even touched on the continuous childish interruptions that came from Trump. So egregious were they that, when Biden complained about his rival, even longtime Fox News host Wallace commiserated, saying, “I’m having a little trouble myself.”
This hour-and-a-half debate felt ironically like a microcosm of all the existing problems of our political system —problems which I defined in my recent editorial series, “The Inevitability of Donald Trump.”
On the right: an overtly racist Republican president, committed to at the very least bending the rules of political decorum along with his party members who paved his way. He is not deterred from hypocrisy, but rather seems gleeful to engage in it, for the sole purpose of winning the political game.
And on the left: a softer-spoken, mostly-ineffective Democratic challenger. Constantly talked over by his boisterous and malignant opponent, failing to present any real or effective counterattacks and alienating a large subset of his potential voters, it’s hard to believe any viewers saw him as a quality challenge to Trump.
I don’t know what will happen in November between these two men. All this debate revealed to me, and it seems to many others as well, is that I’m not looking forward to finding out.
Kyle Gombosi is a senior Music: Elective Studies major with a minor in journalism. KG806059@wcupa.edu