On Sept. 29, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden clashed in an exceptionally chaotic first presidential debate. The debate covered a variety of important issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of the economy and the recent Black Lives Matter protests. However, personal attacks made by the candidates defined the debate for many viewers.
Drake University Professor Rachel Caufield of the Department of Political Science wants to reassure young voters that this was not a normal presidential debate.
“For first time voters… on behalf of America, I apologize,” Caufield said. “This is not how it’s meant to be and this is not how it will always be.”
Accusations flew thick and fast as each nominee presented their own version of the truth. Often, Biden and Trump could not come to an agreement about the basic facts of the issues they were discussing, such as the approximate amount of time it will take for a COVID-19 vaccine to become widely available. Both nominees frequently attacked their opponent’s record on COVID-19, race relations and other topics, changing the focus of the conversation from the issues at hand to the candidates themselves.
“The lack of any sort of coherent explanation of how you would like to lead the country to change policy to address problems is… just frustrating to people,” Caufield said. “Which future do we want? That [choice] requires… some idea of what the future looks like under each candidate.”
John Altendorf, president of the Drake College Republicans, said that he thinks the debate was a waste of time.
“I don’t think that either candidate really did a service to the voters by the debate on Tuesday night,” Altendorf said. “They spend far too much time attacking each other [and] not enough time on issues of substance to voters.”
Each candidate tried to paint a certain picture of their opponent during the debate. Biden cast Trump as a divisive figure who lacks plans for healthcare and COVID-19, while Trump portrayed Biden as a tool of the “Radical Left” during discussion of the Green New Deal and the Black Lives Matter protests.
According to Caufield, Trump’s strategy has hit on the “fundamental question” of Joe Biden’s campaign.
“One of the problems [Joe Biden] faces is that there is a legitimate left, progressive wing of the party with some fairly dramatic policy proposals that have gained mainstream support within the Democractic Party,” Caufield said. “Joe Biden has always been able to step back and say, that’s not me, that’s not who I am. But every time he steps back, he gets further from the progressive wing of the party, and he makes it less likely that he’s energizing young, progressive voters.”
In contrast, Kody Craddick, the President of Drake Democrats, says that Trump appeals only to his base.
“He’s playing to appease the 30 to 35 percent of the country who will do anything for him,” Craddick said.
Biden’s array of insults for the President stood out from the other personal attacks. Over the course of the debate, Biden called Trump “racist,” a “clown,” and “the worst president America has ever had.”
Craddick says that Biden’s name-calling was necessary in light of Trump’s behavior.
“I think that… if someone’s going to act like a child, you’re going to have to try to be the father up on that stage, and I think Joe Biden did that by… telling him to shut up, man, or calling him a clown,” Craddick said.
In addition, both candidates evaded questions and made many attempts to cut in while their opponent was still speaking. Chris Wallace, the moderator of the debate, called out Trump in particular for repeatedly interrupting Biden.
These problems and the focus on personal attacks led Caufield to form a strong negative impression of the debate.
“[The debate] was confrontational, it was chaotic, it was disorganized, it was frustrating… it was a difficult debate to watch,” Caufield said. “I have a hard time even calling it a debate, ‘cause I’m not sure that’s what it was.”
Altendorf and Craddick disagree about what changes should be made to improve the quality of future debates.
Altendorf is open to making improvements to the debate format, but he is “not a fan” of giving the debate moderator the power to mute candidates.
“I don’t like the idea of silencing free speech by cutting off the President or the former Vice President while they’re speaking,” Altendorf said. “I’ll leave it up to the Debate Commission to figure out… the best way forward to make the debates more productive.”
Craddick, on the other hand, is in favor of muting microphones and ending debates early in some cases.
“I think that it seems childish to [mute candidates]. We shouldn’t… have to cut people’s mics if they’re interrupting 70 times in a debate, but we’re not dealing with a fully grown-up incumbent,” Craddick said.
Altendorf and Craddick also have different ideas about who won the debate.
“I think Biden won, hands down, because Trump showed himself to be an individual who… [is] not capable of making the tough decisions,” Craddick said. “Biden… has the experience… and he has the tools and intelligence to make sure that these issues get taken care of.”
On the other hand, Altendorf thought that Trump did a better job articulating his accomplishments than Biden, especially his economic achievements.
Madeleine Leigh, a member of Drake Democrats, took a different view.
“I’m not sure that anyone won [the debate], but I think that the American people kind of lost,” Leigh said.
Leigh and other Drake students attended a Debate Watch Party hosted by Drake Democrats on Tuesday night. According to Craddick, about fifty to sixty people attended, and the Watch Party was covered by KCCI.
“I think we showed that we’re not afraid to show who we are as Democrats,” Craddick said.
Caufield and her dog Lucy also attended the Watch Party.
“It was a beautiful night,” Caufield said. “It’s great to give people an opportunity to come together in a social environment, even amid the limitations of the pandemic, and to have some sort of communal political experience… It’s like going to a drive-in movie theater, but updated!”
However chaotic and frustrating the debate may have been, the frequent laughter of the students at the Watch Party seems to prove that any political experience becomes more enjoyable when it is shared with others.