Introduction by Joe DeMartin ’21
“A shit show” — Dana Bash might have spoken for all of America with her blunt assessment of Tuesday night’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Biden. It was a night marred by constant interruption and exhaustion, much of it due to the President’s apparent strategy. At one point, the President’s interruptions became so disruptive to the proceedings that Fox News Sunday host and debate moderator Chris Wallace pleaded for Mr. Trump to stop the interruptions: “I think the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.”
Based on most snap polls of debate watchers, former Vice President Biden was the winner of the debate. However, the most salient measure of who wins any debate is the shift in undecided voters towards one candidate or the other. Veteran pollster Frank Luntz has made a career in part based on bringing to light the views of these undecided voters in the immediate aftermath of debates, and his assessment may be the grimmest of them all: “This debate has actually convinced some undecided voters to not vote at all. I’ve never seen a debate cause this reaction.”
Surely, we can do better than this.
The following are the responses and reactions to the debate from Addie McDonough ‘23, the Vice President of the Davidson College Democrats, and Eli Minsky ‘22, a member of Young Americans for Freedom and Davidson College Republicans.
‘The Democrats are going to take your Cows’ and other Headaches from the First Presidential Debate
By Addie McDonough ’23
In a conversation dominated by interruptions, the first presidential debate largely avoided important topics with dog-whistle statements and low blows. The comprehensible bits of the debate seemed to focus on scapegoat issues––be it a family scandal, the decline of the suburbs, and even threats of forced vegetarianism––instead of the things Americans actually deserved to hear.
Trump’s typical character shone through— he was loud and rude, so much so that Moderator Chris Wallace, a Fox News Reporter, went head-to-head with the President. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric was the same as always, and he repeatedly blamed others (take your pick: China, Obama, Crooked Hillary) for the mismanagement under his watch. The President was able to do what he does best: distract.
Let’s be clear, California is not on fire because of a lack of management. Blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on China only distracts from the failure to stop the spread of the virus right here in the United States. The police system is not bad because of a few bad apples––it has systematic, structural flaws. White supremacy is unacceptable in any and all of its forms. All of these statements grazed the surface of meaningful and important topics, but instead of plans, Americans got an earful of lies and distractions.
Biden was able to maintain the moral high ground but stooped below his level by dignifying ridiculous claims with a response. The former Vice President had an arsenal of Trump failures in his back pocket, such as Trump’s leaked income taxes, that he could have pushed harder on. Biden’s humility shone through despite ruthless attacks on the Biden family from the other podium. Admittedly, “Will you shut up, man?” was a highlight of the night.
Here is what America deserved to hear about: the environment, social justice, race, healthcare, and yes, the economy. Students like me who are disheartened by the current path of government amidst a lack of justice, 200,000 plus COVID deaths, and the passing of powerhouse Ruth Bader Ginsberg looked to the debate for hope. We got, in the words of Vice President Biden, “a bunch of malarkey.”
Bottom line: Surface level, distracting claims made by the candidates managed to add on to what has seemed a year of hell. Students need to look past these efforts to steal their attention and look at what is really at stake: future environmental stability, reproductive rights, and health care in a time of pandemic, among other issues. Biden came with plans; Trump came with distractions. Take your pick.
Conserving the Power Within Us — An Analysis of the First Presidential Debate
By Eli Minsky ‘22
Why do I support a limited government? Look no further than last week’s presidential debate. I’m not keen on handing either of those candidates any more power than they already have. George Washington warned about political parties and big government in his Farewell Address (10-13); we are seeing firsthand the polarization and animosity that is a result of looking to the federal government to solve all our problems and thinking that one person has the answers.
Our additional foundational documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution, discuss the importance of self-governance. Whether it is the President or any other American citizen, we are each afforded liberties that allow us to have ownership over our own lives. John Locke once said, “The most precious of all possessions is power over ourselves.” A society made up of individuals—not bureaucrats—who can take ownership of their own lives before looking to direct society as a whole is a society that can preserve freedom while providing for the common good.
In the same light, the debate proved that our nominees are flawed like the rest of us. These men were unable to govern themselves for 90 minutes. How, then, do we expect them (or anybody) to govern all of us? In a time where justice and change are at the forefront of our minds, we spend too much time looking to those at the top to fix problems that we cannot even fix within ourselves. Change always begins within each of us; the impact we can make in our own lives and those directly around us is often understated.
After watching the debate, I left feeling unsure of who “won.” Moderator Chris Wallace certainly did not, though he tried his best. He may as well have announced himself as a write-in candidate afterward to bring the debate full circle.
I believe President Trump won the majority of policy arguments and had better attacks. His arguments about the economy (pre-, mid-, and post-COVID), confirming a new SCOTUS, bringing down health care costs, and the benefits of re-opening the country (to name a few) came off as more substantiated and persuasive. In addition, a portion of Trump’s attacks—such as the reference to Biden’s record and 47 years in government versus Trump’s record and “47 months” in office—were effective and difficult for Biden to argue. At times, I saw a different, more polished candidate than was on stage in 2016. However, there were also times when Trump could have evoked stronger policy arguments: his responses to climate questions were unimpressive, and he could have crafted a persuasive argument on the topic of race. He did not succeed on this issue, and his lack of clarity, intent aside, may have dug himself a deeper hole. Most apparent was President Trump’s inability to keep quiet for enough time to allow Vice President Biden to speak. Not only was this annoying, but everybody was waiting for Biden to slip up and say something weird; President Trump eliminated that issue by talking over him. Instead, Trump should have challenged Biden by directing some attention towards him. In this way, he could allow Biden to trip over himself as he has done all election cycle, rather than putting undesirable attention on himself.
For Vice President Biden, the bar was set so low that just being able to get through 90 minutes of standing and speaking clearly is a win. He was not memorable, he was not strong when debating policy, and his attacks were soft. Repeating that “this guy doesn’t know what he is talking about” or “this guy doesn’t have a plan,” without backing those claims up, does not win a debate. Moreover, confusion over his own healthcare and climate policies did not help support his assertion that he was the man with the plan. Furthermore, nobody likes to be told to “shut up.” Hearing Vice President Biden say it to the President, no matter who the President is or how annoying he was being, was not satisfying. That said, I give Vice President Biden credit for staying mostly subdued throughout Trump’s constant interruption. Though he stooped to Trump’s level at times, his ability to stand there, let Trump speak, and hold himself back was impressive. In this way, he could let Trump be his own worst enemy. All Biden had to do was try to not implode and speak directly to the American people when he had the chance, rather than focusing on successful policy discussion. By the same token, his attempt at playing the nice guy eased many people’s psyches, just as Trump’s playing the combatant reassured others.
As election day nears, I’m looking forward to watching the vice presidential debate more than another presidential debate. Both candidates are more capable of answering questions clearly and, I hope, respectfully.
All things considered, no matter the disappointments or concerns of the coming election, if we remain focused on being the best people we can be, we will be okay.