The first presidential debate coverage: what happened, and thoughts

7 mins read

The circus came to town last night as the first presidential debate of the US election fired the starting gun on the final five weeks to polling day.

The fiery contest under the lights in Cleveland, Ohio, threatened to deteriorate at times with fierce exchanges between the candidates and the moderator, Chris Wallace.

The campaign has already been dogged by drama: from the often chaotic race for the Democrat presidential ticket, through to the Supreme Court nominee fight and furore at the weekend surrounding the leak of President Trump’s closely guarded tax returns.

Republican incumbent President Trump was on the ground first, with former VP Joe Biden flying in from Delaware just hours before proceedings got under way.

The Republican campaign languished behind Biden in the polls going into this encounter, but it was the former Delaware senator who faltered as Trump laid on his trademark belligerent style. 

The opening salvos saw the candidates discuss the Supreme Court vacancy in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing earlier this month. The two locked horns with Trump declaring “elections have consequences”, arguing that “we have the right to choose” as he sought to strengthen support for the decision to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the bench before Inauguration Day.

Biden stuck to the Democrat line of arguing – “we should wait and see the outcome of this election” – before attempting to drag the debate onto the Affordable Care Act, more familiarly known as Obamacare. His statistic of “100 million with pre-existing conditions” was a source of attack for Trump, claiming the figure was false and arguing that Biden’s party “wants to go socialist”. 

Image Credit: NBC

‘Roe v Wade’, the Supreme Court judgement protecting access to abortion in the US, made an appearance. Biden claimed the ruling was at stake, whilst Trump defended his nominee: “You don’t know [Barrett’s] view in Roe v Wade.” Tempers continued to rise, and Trump increasingly cut in, prompting Biden to chide his opponent (“Will you shut up man?”) as Wallace struggled to rein in tensions.

The debate briefly returned to script in the next section, addressing the pandemic as both candidates battled over a crisis that has so far left more than 200,000 Americans dead. Biden went on the attack from the outset, claiming that the president has “no plan” and referencing the Woodward tapes on which the President admits to downplaying the crisis. Trump struck his usual tone, arguing that “it’s China’s fault” before claiming that Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said President Trump has “saved thousands of lives”.

The issue of Trump’s tax returns was briefly touched upon, with Trump rejecting the claim: “I paid millions of dollars in taxes.” Beyond this, however, he faced very little scrutiny during the economy section. On policy, Biden managed to regain his composure, setting out his priorities by arguing that the country “can’t fix the economy until you’ve fixed the COVID crisis”. He outlined his plan to create 7 million jobs, “$1 trillion in growth” and to increase corporation tax from 21% to 28%.

CNN fact-checked the presidential debate: “An avalanche of lying” by Trump  - Vox
Trump was in hot water over tax returns scandal. Image Credit: Getty Images

Beyond the economy segment the debate collapsed into angry exchanges between the candidates, leaving the moderator struggling to control the pair; one particular exchange caused an outburst from Biden, when Trump made a reference to his son, Hunter Biden.

One definitive moment during the debate, one that may cause Trump issues later in the campaign, was when the moderator asked him to denounce white supremacist and far-right groups. The President refused to condemn them, deflecting the question and instead choosing to focus on the violence he blamed on far-left groups.

Ultimately Biden managed to overcome his faltering start, despite Trump dominating the opening stages. As the debate gradually swung in Biden’s favour, Trump became increasingly hostile to not only his opponent, but to the moderator, in a number of frantic and heated exchanges. Whilst both candidates put in less-than-convincing performances, Biden came off slightly better. He managed to recover his folksy charm, set out concrete policy, and rise above some of Trump’s more belligerent moments. 

The general consensus from most media outlets was not so much a Biden victory as a Trump defeat. CNN stated that “any reasonable assessment must ask whether Trump destroyed his own presidency” and branded the debate “easily the worst and most rancorous in history”.

Writing for the BBC, Anthony Zurcher called the debate for Biden, with Trump’s abrasive style being the main reason for his defeat. Trump’s style was highlighted by Zurcher best, in the quote of a CBS figure for the number of occasions Trump interrupted Biden: a whopping 73.

The New York Times was equally critical of Trump’s performance and delivered a damning verdict of the overall debate. “Who won? There was broad agreement amongst political observers on one thing: whoever won, America lost.”

Whilst last night made for an entertaining spectacle, the ultimate loser in this exchange was the presidential race itself, as proceedings degenerated into a farce. At a time when the US needed strong leadership and a return to respectful discourse, the debate resulted in two candidates railing at each other with all the decorum and maturity of a back-alley brawl. Clearly the chaos gripping the country has swept up the campaigns with it, as the lengthening shadow of November approaches.

Featured Image Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

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Journalism Studies undergraduate at the University of Stirling

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