A Dumpster Fire: First Presidential Debate Recap

An attempt to parse out the political dialogue from the squabble


Keshav Kundassery, Senior Editor

You have probably heard by now that the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was the worst, most incomprehensible, and least civil presidential debate ever. As true as this was, this article is going to save the hand-wringing and try to parse out the political dialogue from the squabble.


Supreme Court

The first issue discussed was the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sudden and tragic passing. Donald Trump has nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to fill the seat, while Joe Biden holds that the 2020 election should decide which party fills the seat. The debate kicked off with each candidate being asked to defend their respective position. Trump asserted that an election had already been held – the 2016 one. Moreover, he claimed that Barrett is respected by judicial scholars from across the political spectrum, including liberals. Notably, he also left open the possibility that the confirmation process could happen during the lame duck period between the upcoming election and inauguration.

In response, Biden argued that it is not just that there is an election coming up, there is one in progress – some tens of thousands of voters have already submitted their absentee ballots or voted early. He then pivoted to the issue the Democratic Party rode to victory in the 2018 midterms, and has chosen to frame the Supreme Court fight around – healthcare. According to him, if Barrett is nominated, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is gone and 20 million people will lose their health insurance. Those with pre-existing conditions will once again be discriminated against by health insurance providers.

Trump used this opportunity to pounce on Biden’s coziness with Bernie Sanders, calling him a socialist. Biden pointed out that indeed the reason he won his party’s nomination, and the ire of the left, was because he was so clearly not a socialist. He then tried to note that Roe v. Wade was also on the table with a Barrett nomination, on top of the ACA. Trump pointed out that no one actually knows Barrett’s juridical position on Roe v. Wade. Although not exactly true, this was an interesting, but sensible reply – on the one hand, almost 70% of the country supports Roe v. Wade, but on the other hand, this line is not losing him any evangelical voters, who are clearly enthused by Barrett, a staunch Catholic.

Finally, Biden was asked what he thought of the Democrats’ whispers about packing the courts or nuking the filibuster. He refused to either denounce or deny those ideas, instead reasserting that the people should have a say as to who replaces Justice Ginsburg.



The next segment kicked off with both candidates being asked why they ought to be trusted to handle the pandemic. Biden answered first, arguing that the fact there still is a pandemic left to handle is itself a reason to trust him over Trump. 200,000 people have died, with 7 million people infected – the worst numbers across the world. Trump defended himself, noting that his early travel bans on China and Europe saved thousands of lives. He also pointed out that the numbers coming out of India, Russia, and Brazil aren’t necessarily trustworthy, so perhaps the US isn’t the worst in the world. He then, ill-advisedly, brought up the Obama administration’s mishandling of the swine flu. To this Biden had only to respond that the swine flu killed 14,000 people, an order of magnitude less than the current pandemic.

Wallace then pressed Biden on his recent comments about a coming vaccine. Biden has argued that it would not be wise to take a vaccine approved under a Trump administration. Wallace wanted Biden to establish whether he trusted scientists or not. Biden said that he would trust private scientists, working independently of the Trump White House. He reminded viewers that Trump knew about the true risks of the virus back in February, and chose not to do anything about it. Trump’s rejoinder: does this include Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson?


The Economy

This discussion then pivoted to one of President Trump’s more favorable topics. He kicked it off by telling viewers that Biden wants to shut down the country again. Alcoholism, divorce, and suicide are on the rise, and the best thing for the country right now is to stay open and as close to normal as possible. Biden didn’t respond to this accusation directly, but put emphasis on the dismal state of the economy. According to him, Trump will be the first president to leave office with fewer jobs than when he entered. Trump in turn did not respond to Biden either. He explained that New York City looks like a ghost town right now, and may never recover. We must keep the country open!

Wallace then asked Trump directly about his economic plan for recovery. Trump responded that he brought college football back. Biden, to the same question, responded that we should increase taxes on households earning more than $400,000 per year, which a Wall Street analysis shows would accelerate recovery.

Trump quipped that the Obama/Biden recovery from 2008 was the slowest economic recovery since 1929. Biden explained that the 2008 recession also happened to be the worst one since 1929. Biden then unnecessarily shifted the conversation to manufacturing. While it is true that the Obama administration saved the auto industry, the Biden-backed North-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a large reason why manufacturing jobs left the US en-masse in the 1990s. Trump, however, failed to capitalize on this opening and merely said that they “blew manufacturing, especially in Ohio.” He did not mention Biden’s previous support of NAFTA, or the Obama administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both viewed as key Biden weaknesses, and reasons for the manufacturing job flight.



Biden kicked off the segment by reciting a prepared speech. He accused the president of inciting racial violence at Charlottesville, calling neo-Nazis “fine people.” He noted that African Americans have died disproportionately from COVID-19, and that he has overall done nothing for the community. Trump responded with his own race-related attacks. Biden supported the 1994 crime bill, whose victims Trump claims he has made efforts to free from prison today. He believes that is why he polls higher among African Americans than any recent Republican candidate. He also tried immediately to pivot to his support of law enforcement officers, and the idea that Portland and Seattle are currently on fire. He dared Biden to even say “law enforcement,” chiding that Biden would “lose the left” if he did. Biden replied that he does believe most police officers are good people – it’s just that there are some bad apples that need to be held accountable. He also insisted that the protests have only been peaceful.

Although Biden’s characterization is probably unfair, Trump took the other extreme, claiming that there has not in fact been a single protest that wasn’t violent. The takeaway message from Trump was that Biden would only make the runaway violence even worse, given his explicit support of the protestors and the fact that most of the violence is happening in Democrat-run cities. Biden added that much of the violence has been encouraged by Trump, specifically his refusal to denounce white supremacist militias. Trump countered with a nebulous plea to the Proud Boys, who seem to have interpreted it as validation.


Election Integrity

The final segment was an unplanned one, but ended up being the most consequential and dramatic. It began with a simple question from Wallace to both candidates: will you accept the results of the election, whether you win or lose? Biden went first, urging his supporters to make a plan to vote, and affirming that he would accept the results of the election, even if he loses. Trump responded with a speech more or less unheard of in American politics. He claimed that Obama and Biden plotted with Hillary Clinton to stage a coup during the 2016 lame-duck period. He went on to assert that millions of mail in ballots are being sent, unsolicited, across the country and are largely fraudulent. He said that thousands of them have been found dumped in rivers, and in trash cans, that were exclusively intended to be votes for him. He urged his supporters to go to polling stations in person to watch the polls, and make sure to challenge fraudulent activity. Biden had little to offer in the face of all this, except assuring viewers that Trump cannot stay in office if he loses. He failed to recognize that Trump was not just threatening to stay in office if he loses. He was laying the groundwork to convince much of the country that he actually won.



Overall, the main takeaway from this debate for most viewers will not be the political discussion, but rather the abject lack of civility. It was a debate that was in no way conducive to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Promisingly, the Committee on Presidential Debates is looking into possible improvements for the next one.


Image Credit: Joe Biden—Vice presidential debate 2012 by Barack Obama is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA