President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joseph Biden went head to head in the first of three scheduled debates Tuesday night.
The debate was held at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. The topics addressed were the Supreme Court, the COVID-19 outbreak; the economy; race; the candidates’ records; the climate; and the integrity of the election.
The pace of the debate was slow and choppy as both candidates frequently talked over each other and sometimes the moderator. Wallace struggled to move the candidates between topics, asking President Trump to stop interrupting several times and awarding Biden extra time lost due to interruption.
As a result, many lamented on social media that Tuesday’s debate was difficult to watch. The candidates did little to shed light on the issues facing the country or the substantive differences between their policies. Trump instead took swipes at Biden’s son Hunter, spread falsehoods about mail-in voting security, and refused to commit to honoring the results of the election.
“The fact is that everything he’s said so far is simply a lie,” Biden said. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar.”
Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacist and militia groups, but the president failed to condemn them directly.
“What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name,” Trump said, before Wallace mentioned the far-right, violent group known as the Proud Boys. Trump then pointedly did not condemn the group, instead saying, “Proud Boys, stand back, stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem. This is a left wing problem.”
The group celebrated his response online and began using the phrase, “Stand back and stand by” on their account on the social media app Telegram. Biden reminded Trump that antifa, short for antifascism, is an ideology, not a specific group of people. Trump dismissed Biden’s assertion.
The candidates talked over each other with such volume and frequency that an exasperated Biden snapped at his opponent saying, “Will you shut up, man?”
At one point during the debate, Wallace said: “Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides get two-minute answers. Uninterrupted. Your side agreed. Observe what your campaign agreed to.”
Trump worked to control the debate while Biden tried to push back, often refusing to look across the stage. Sometimes he looked directly into the camera and spoke to the American people. Once he called the president a “clown” and another occasion said Trump was, “the worst president in the history of the nation.”
Trump struggled to define his ideas for replacing the Affordable Care Act on health care in the debate’s early moments and defended his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The president also claimed to have “brought back football,” referencing the Big Ten conference’s decision to resume play at the end of October.
Biden didn’t always look sharp, stumbling over words and struggling to make points clearly, but he focused his attention on the American people. He looked into the camera and encouraged people to vote when asked about whether he’d add initial justices or “stack” the Supreme Court upon winning the nomination.
That idea, which has gained momentum from the party’s left flank, was not the only way Biden distanced himself from the liberal wing. Biden declined to endorse the Green New Deal and suggested police forces need more support, not defunding.
The debate bounced from topic to topic very quickly. Trump did not embrace the science of climate change, emphasized his role in creating the “greatest economy in the history of the world” and claimed that his “law and order” approach would be best equipped to handle national unrest that has surfaced because of police violence against Black people.
Biden made his bottom line clear, saying, “Under this president, we have become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent.” Trump responded, “In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years, Joe.”
The candidates did not shake hands due to COVID-19 and in-person attendance was reduced to 107 guests to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Neither candidate wore a mask, though Trump at one point pulled one from his jacket pocket and said he wears it when needed.
The next debate will be between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. Trump and Biden will face off in their second debate in Miami on Oct. 15.