The First 2020 Presidential Debate: A Drunken Debacle We All Wish We Could just Forget
The first presidential debate is the drunken one night stand we would all like to forget. As the first debate of what promises to be one of the most significant elections in American history got underway, millions of Americans gleefully shared the rules to the various debate themed drinking games they would be playing. Little did any of us know that over the course of the next few hours, these games and this rancid, joke of a debate would lead to our very undoing.
Now beleaguered and hung over, we must come to terms with the trash fire debate we all witnessed. Honestly, this debate left the American people with a sense of remorse that would rival any drunken Tinder hookup. It’s hard, as we try to come to terms with the emotional rollercoaster, to find any highlights. There are virtually only lowlights, but we’ve painstakingly reviewed the tape. Yes we subjected ourselves to re-watching this dumpster fire, and this time we were sober. In the process, we have found several moments that stand out, either for their peculiar nature, glaring inaccuracy, or being one of the few glimmering moments of hope in an otherwise painful evening.
First and foremost, if you were lucky enough not to have subjected yourself to this debate, it’s important you understand how quickly it went off the rails and the full extent of the damage. So let’s talk about the most annoying element of the debate, the interruptions. By the second question, only moments into the debate, Trump began to not only interrupt Joe Biden but the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace. He interrupted Wallace with such vigor that our moderator had to stop him and say, “I’m the moderator of this debate. I’d like you to let me ask the questions.” This, sadly, was only the first of many times Wallace would need to remind Donald Trump not to interrupt him or Biden and that Wallace’s role was to set the agenda, keep things moving, and ask the questions. Wallace was tasked with probably the most difficult objective of any debate moderator in American history, keeping Donald Trump on task and stopping interruptions. He often reminded Trump it was Biden’s time to speak, which Trump swiftly disregarded. Wallace was frequently forced to tell Trump that, “You’ve asked a question. Let him answer it,” and it is “… an open discussion. Let him answer.” It is estimated that Trump interrupted Wallace and Biden roughly one-hundred and thirty times throughout the course of the debate, shattering his record fifty-one interruptions against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Eventually, a frustrated Joe Biden gave in to Trump’s prods by resorting to name calling. Our favorite things Biden called Trump include, “clown,” “Putin’s puppy,” “the worst president America has ever had,” and the time he flat out told the President of the United States to “shut up man.” All of this left Wallace saying things like, “I hate to raise my voice, but why should I be different than the two of you?” Essentially, early in the debate, the precedent was set that this whole dog and pony show would resemble no other debate in American history, and it would not be at all about the issues.
What’s the result of these interruptions? It certainly makes it harder to have a substantive discussion of the issues. During Biden’s 3 minute long response on Healthcare for example, Trump interrupted by our count fourteen times. Fourteen times in the span of three minutes. Of the three minutes, Biden got about sixty seconds that were Trump-Free, meaning wasn’t talking or talking over him, to try to describe his plan for Healthcare. Healthcare is, for many Americans, the most important issue this country faces. Trump’s interruptions left Biden trying to explain his plan while simultaneously refuting outrageous and outlandish claims Trump shot out rapid fire.
Our favorite nonsensical interruption came when Trump quickly interjected that Biden believes in “Bernie’s socialist manifesto” for healthcare. It’s funny in that it shows either how uninformed Trump is regarding his competitor or how willing he is to spread bold faced lies in order to control the narrative. Anyone who engaged even remotely with the Democratic Primary debates can tell you one of the biggest disputes between Biden and many of his primary opponents was that he does not support Medicare for All, a program that was at the core of Bernie Sanders’ platform and has steadily been gaining popularity the last few years. There’s also a design to incite and elicit ignorant fear by calling it a “socialist manifesto.” It makes it nearly impossible to discuss your plan or agenda for a problem the country is facing when you have to eat up time refuting something so outrageous. It’s also important to emphasize, the sixty seconds Biden got on this subject, were not consecutive. In fact much of it was only little five or ten second stints in between Trumps quick, brazen interjections.
It’s easy to chalk the interruptions up to immaturity or rudeness and move on. However, these interruptions are designed to derail the conversation. Take the socialist manifesto comment, which is unquestionably false. He derailed Biden from talking about his plan. When Biden tries to address the false claim by saying his plan is different than Bernie’s(which it is), Trump pipes back up with another interjection, “You just lost the left,” pushing Biden’s response further and further from being one of substance. When Biden goes on to try to refocus the conversation, Trump then talks over him in length. The strategy is clearly to prevent anyone from talking about any policy plans while perpetuating or inventing claims that are, to use Biden’s words, “simply not true.” It’s the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting, I’m not listening, I’m not listening, I’m not listening. I will give him some credit though, as this strategy, whether consciously or subconsciously, really plays to Trump’s strengths while moving away from his weaknesses.
Donald Trump’s policy platform came in August in the form of bullet points. By comparison, Joe Biden’s ever-growing fifty point(so far) plan is incredibly in depth, going into excruciating detail about how he will rebuild the country. If the candidates were to engage in a substantive policy driven debate, Trump would likely be trounced. His interjections, which are largely wild, unfounded, empirically incorrect assertions, force his opponent to scatter and address conspiracy theory level shade instead of talking about the issues or his agenda. In a way it’s actually sort of brilliant on Trump’s part, albeit reprehensible and immoral, to avoid the issues, to avoid discussing actual policy, and to dominate Biden in terms of screen time. He is banking on the fact that will be enough to win over public opinion.
Beyond the interruptions, Biden is far from the best spoken candidate to run for office, which sadly came through yet again during moments of this debate. In the past he’s been called a walking talking human gaffe machine. This time around, Biden did an excellent job avoiding major slips ups. He does tend to use a lot of meaningless phrases, in fact. Two meaningless filler words that come to mind are in fact the words “in fact,” which he said at least twenty or twenty five times during the debate, five of which were in the same response. A simple speech problem like this can be a major distraction, or at least we thought so. Also, he did flip some numbers around, 91 and 19 for example, a couple of times, but this seems less important or dramatic. Joe, if you’re reading this, we’ve noticed you struggle remembering numbers a lot, and we want you to know, even though it’s honorable to try, not every point needs to be quantified numerically.
Biden speaks out frequently about how he’s overcome his stutter. Although this is a tremendous achievement on his part that requires a high level of discipline. We can’t help but wonder if that plays a role in his one-off flibs and flabs or poor debate performances. Biden often finds himself struggling to stay on topic, to keep a clear train of thought. Of course, the one hundred and thirty interruptions probably didn’t help, but we just really have to question how much of that is due to the mental effort required to control his stutter. When you take this into consideration, Trump’s interruptions feel a lot more like a bully harassing the kid who struggles with adversity. There’s a certain nurse Ratched vibe, certainly. Still it doesn’t change the fact that Biden was not particularly eloquent during the debate. Although the bigger issue is how Joe Biden, at times, poorly represented his plan for the future of our country.
Joe Biden managed to directly contradict his policy platform more than once. It is unclear whether he was just confused by the assault of interjections or attempting to deliberately downplay how progressive his plan is. Two particularly glaring instances are his responses on Healthcare and Climate Change. Biden’s plan for Healthcare hinges on the Public Option, which has the potential to drive the overall cost of Healthcare in America down dramatically while getting millions more Americans coverage. This is how Biden’s website describes it:
If your insurance company isn’t doing right by you, you should have another, better choice. Whether you’re covered through your employer, buying your insurance on your own, or going without coverage altogether, Biden will give you the choice to purchase a public health insurance option like Medicare. As in Medicare, the Biden public option will reduce costs for patients by negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health care providers.
Now, it definitely sounds like this option would be made accessible to anyone who’s interested, doesn’t it? In fact the idea of it being able to drive down overall cost in the country relies on that being the case. Yet during the debate Biden said, “It’s only for those people who are so poor they qualify for Medicaid.” Joe goes on to discuss how those people, the ones with very low income, would be automatically enrolled and how this will help solve the problem with states who refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act despite how it would have benefited their citizens. It is just so unclear if he was mistaken here, and thinking about the auto enrollment, or if he was worried centrists wouldn’t like something that could potentially hurt private insurance… Well “hurt” in so much that it forces them to be more competitive at least.
The other troubling example is his response to questions on Climate. While responding to one of Wallace’s questions about his plan for Climate Change, Trump interrupts and says Biden is talking about the Green New Deal, which will cost 100 Trillion. This is not an exact quote, because we’re glossing over Trump misquoting and misunderstanding the numbers that were being discussed. Throughout the rest of this conversation, he interchanges millions, billions, and trillions. In response Joe says, “I’m talking about the Biden Plan.” Then, as it often does during this debate, the conversation devolved to nonsense accusations from Trump about “taking out cows” and lots of quick little bits about cars. None of that is or has ever been a part of the Green New Deal or Biden’s environment plan, just for the record. Trump really stirs the pot with interjections on this topic, no doubt because it’s one of Biden’s most detailed policies. He asks why Biden hasn’t already done it in his 47 years in politics, at which point he seals his insults with “The Green New Deal is a hundred trillion dollars.” The truth is the actual cost of the Green New Deal is incredibly hard to project. While yes, some conservative leaning think tanks have estimated it may cost 50–95 trillion, which is a huge and unreliable margin(45T) by the way, it’s still unknown what the actual cost would be. In response, Biden says, “That is not my plan… The Green New Deal… is not my plan.” This is where things really get problematic.
There are so many things we love about Joe Biden’s Climate plan, but the biggest is that it, very early on, describes the Green New Deal as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” Also like the Green New Deal, his plan acknowledges that our environment and our economy are completely interwoven, meaning the success of one relies on the success of the other. Both lay out an incredibly similar roadmap for success. So why deny the similarity? Well the Green New Deal is attacked daily by Republicans. Our best guess is that the negative publicity toward the Green New Deal and exorbitant(and unreliable) price tag that it’s been saddled with make it politically unpalatable, leaving Biden struggling to differentiate in order to get into office and get it done. Although Biden’s lackluster peddling of his own policy leaves us concerned, it’s nothing compared to what is inarguably the lowest point of the debate.
Trump refused to disavow racists again. While it doesn’t sound shocking at all given his track record, the manner was far more direct than it’s been in the past. Wallace asked him:
“…Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”
It’s a really direct question. Although Trump answered yes, he quickly deflected to what he perceives as radicalists on the left and anti-fa. When pressed, he said, “Proud boys stand back and stand by.” Neither Wallace nor Biden lingered on this response, though it echoed through the stadium, through the television sets of 73 million Americans watching at home, and through the thralls of twitter and other social media. Stand back and standby. If you’re a person of color this moment in the debate no doubt hit particularly close to home. If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this moment no doubt hit particularly close to home. If you’re anyone in America fearful that hate groups have been subverting our country’s youth, and that after lying in wait for decades, they are now preparing for massive acts of violence and hate, this moment no doubt hit particularly close to home. The president of the United States, when asked to disavow hate groups instead told them to “standby.” This was about the time during our first viewing that we busted out the shot glasses. Just writing about and revisiting this low point in, not only the debate but arguably our country’s entire history, brings a sense of existential dread front of mind. So with that, we’re going to move on and discuss what we see as the highest point, a glimmering moment of candid love and understanding.
Joe Biden stood up for his son, Hunter Biden, whose drug addiction has become a focal point of his opponent’s attacks. In a response to Trump’s flippant comments about the men and women who have served our country, he brings up his late son, Beau Biden, who served our country before serving as Delaware’s Attorney General and eventually passing of brain cancer at the age of 46. Joe Biden says,
“…And speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military, the way you talk about them being losers and being and just being suckers. My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there. He got the Brown Star. He got the Conspicuous Service Medal. He was not a loser. He was a Patriot and the people left behind there were heroes.”
Trump then steered the conversation away from Beau and back to attacks on Hunter.
President Donald J. Trump:
Are you talking Hunter, are you talking about Hunter?
Vice President Joe Biden:
I’m talking about my son, Beau Biden. You’re talking about Hunter.
President Donald J. Trump:
I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out dishonorably discharged.
Vice President Joe Biden:
That’s not true; he was not dishonorably discharged.
President Donald J. Trump:
For cocaine use. And he didn’t have a job until you became vice president.
Vice President Joe Biden:
None of that is true.
President Donald J. Trump:
Once you became vice president he made a fortune in Ukraine, in China, in Moscow and various other places.
Vice President Joe Biden:
That is not true.
President Donald J. Trump:
He made a fortune and he didn’t have a job.
It was at this moment that Biden once again directly addressed the camera. This time, he was not addressing the American people, as he so frequently did throughout the evening. He was addressing his son, Hunter when he said,
“My son like a lot of people at home had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him, I’m proud of my son.”
Too often, politicians try to distance themselves from relatives whose actions may be perceived as immoral or harmful to their campaign. Trump has repeatedly attacked Biden’s son. This is far from the first time he’s brought up Hunter’s drug use. In response, Biden didn’t try to deflect; he didn’t lie; he looked into the camera and told his son he was proud of him. Biden said he’s proud of how far Hunter has come in his battle with addiction. It was a uniquely genuine and unpolitical moment, although experiences like this likely inspire policy like Biden’s very progressive approach to drug abuse and rehabilitation. It was just such a human moment, untainted by what was undoubtedly a contentious debate full of conspiracy theories, name calling, and conjecture.
There were lots of other smaller moments in the debate that were certainly of interest. Biden telling Trump he picked the wrong guy at the wrong time, for example. It was certainly entertaining listening to Wallace pleading with both candidates to try to take this seriously. Trump claiming support from specific members of the police community, who have already come out and said that is made up, or that ironic moment when Trump accused Biden of making a lot of things up, all of which were laughable, terribly fun moments… Or is it terrible fun moments? No, they were just so terrible they were fun. There were uplifting moments as well, like when Biden looked at us all through the camera and encouraged us to stand up against voter suppression and intimidation, or when he reminded us to vote vote vote, that it is within our control to determine what this country will look like for the next four years.
The debate, very fittingly, ended in a confusing cloud of the candidates attempting to talk over each other after Trump once again interrupted Biden. At which point Wallace puts an end to this mind-boggling, drunken night by telling us all, “This is the end of the debate. We are going to leave it there…” He said as much while shouting over Trump as Trump speaks over Biden’s final response. He snickers as he continues “President Trump, Vice president Biden, it’s been an interesting hour and a half.” In a way it was oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, when after an evening of potions, relaxed inhibitions, and a jackass center of attention, Puck proclaims:
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended —
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend…
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long…
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
Perhaps we would all be better off, were it as easy as just remembering this night as a dream and nothing more. A flickering moment in our country’s history that we can one day forget. An alcohol-fueled hallucination. If we could all just join hands in friendship and walk off into the sunset together. Sadly, forgetting tonight can never and should never happen (even if it does sound really nice right about now) and, unlike sitting in the audience at a production of Midsummer, we need to remember the things that were said on that stage tonight, the good and the bad.
I want to leave you with one last thought, this final digression. Here’s the thing, one final thought on Trump’s interruptions, which undoubtedly dominated the evening. If his plan is to derail and talk over any actual policy plans, it’s smart only in so much as he then doesn’t have to talk about his own lack of plans. What this tactic fails to account for is that after four years of this, with an ensuing pandemic, a crumbling economy, and countless other issues that directly threaten our very way of life, the American people may actually want to hear about the issues. They may actually want to hear substantive plans. So while Trump may be sticking his fingers in his ears and chanting, the rest of us are here. Listening. No longer ignoring or dreaming. And you know what? No matter how trashed we may get on November 3rd, we will be casting our ballots first. Because if there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this debate it’s that even though they may be entertaining, we’re tired of the games, be they drinking or political.