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Candidates clash during first presidential debate, exchanging insults

| Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The highly-anticipated first 2020 presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden took place Tuesday with no opening handshake due to COVID-19 and several reminders to both candidates to respect the allotted time of each candidate.

Throughout the night, tension rose as Trump continued to talk over Biden, who eventually told Trump to “shut up.” At one point, Biden called Trump the worst president in American history to which Trump responded that he had done more for the country in 47 months than Biden had done in 47 years.

Trump, the Republican incumbent, stood by his campaign slogan of “Keep America Great” with his defense of a booming economy during his first term that he claimed overshadows the work of the Barack Obama-Biden administration. Democratic nominee Biden said he and Obama overcame a historic recession and handed Trump an uplifted economy.

In addition to an economic focus, the candidates argued a range of topics from appropriate response to the coronavirus pandemic to the integrity of mail-in ballots to race relations in America.

Originally, Tuesday’s debate was scheduled to be held on Notre Dame’s campus after the University announced it had won the bid to host the debate in a press conference Oct. 11, 2019. The University officially withdrew from the debate July 27, as University President Fr. John Jenkins cited health concerns and a diminished experience for students to engage in the political process as the leading reasons for the cancellation.

Junior Francine Shaft said she was disappointed the University ultimately did not hold the debate as she was looking forward to it.

“I think if they have football, they probably could have made it work, and I think they could have just limited the number of outside people that came in,” Shaft said. “And with the testing that we have, it probably would have been safe.”

Instead, the debate took place at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. Attendance was reportedly capped at 70, and all attendants had to undergo COVID-19 testing.

Despite students’ disappointments on the change of location, hundreds gathered on South Quad for a watch party hosted by student government.

Alysa Guffey | The Observer
Hundreds of students gathered on South Quad to watch the first presidential debate live.

Moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace opened the debate with a hot topic at Notre Dame — the recent nomination of law school professor Amy Coney Barrett to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court.

Trump defended his swift nomination of Barrett as a responsibility to the American people.

“We won the election, and elections have consequences. We have the Senate and the White House,” Trump said.

He also cited liberal support for Barrett.

“Some of her biggest supporters are liberals including from Notre Dame,” Trump said.

Biden argued the seat should not be filled until Americans vote this November.

“The American people have a right to say who the Supreme Court nominee is when they vote for the president. They are not going to get that chance because we’re in the middle of an election,” Biden said.

As the debate shifted to focus on the ongoing pandemic, Trump and Biden clashed on both personal views on safety measures — including mask-wearing — and plans for economic prosperity. Biden condemned Trump for the number of deaths from the virus, saying the president “panicked” and did not listen to experts on the seriousness of the virus.

Biden also took hits at the president’s refusal to accept the grim reality of coronavirus deaths, saying that when Trump was shown the numbers, the president simply said, “It is what it is.”

“Well, it is what it is because you are who you are. That’s why it is. The president has no plan. He hasn’t laid out anything,” Biden said.

Trump responded that Biden “could have never done the job [the Trump administration] did.”

“If it was up to you, millions of people would have died, not thousands,” Trump said.

An extended segment on race in America led to Biden calling Trump out for his protection of white supremacists in a 2017 riot in Charlottesville in addition to calling Trump a racist.

While Trump did not condemn the white supremacists he called “fine people” in 2017, he attacked Biden for his treatment of Black Americans.

“You have treated the Black community about as bad as anyone has,” Trump said to Biden. “You call them super-predators, and you’ve called them a lot worse than that.”

The debate took a personal turn toward the Biden family as Biden brought up his son, Beau, who received a bronze star in the military. Trump proceeded to attack Joe Biden’s other son, Hunter, claiming he was dishonorably discharged from the military with a cocaine addiction and later received illegitimate funds from Ukraine. Biden responded that the Ukraine scandal was not true, and he acknowledged Hunter’s past struggles with drugs.

“My son had a drug problem, but he’s overcome it, and I’m proud of him,” Biden said.

Sophomore Anna Guzman described Trump’s attacks as “incredibly personal.”

“Trump’s attacks were incredibly out of line, honestly, he is an embarrassment to our nation, especially after his performance tonight,” Guzman said.

A common tactic the candidates seemed to share was an appeal to voters in Midwestern swing states such as Ohio and Michigan. At one point, Trump bragged about his contribution to the return of Big Ten College Football while Biden pointed out his contributions to autoworkers.

In regard to the outcome of the 2020 election, Trump deflected to a skeptical stance on the legitimacy of mail-in voting.

“If it’s a fair election, I’m 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.

Biden said he would wait to declare victory until the election results are verified.

After the debate, junior and co-president of College Democrats Emma Dudrick said she felt Trump derailed the night with his interruptions and personal attacks on Biden.

“I think that Biden held his ground well, and I really appreciated his comments about the importance of voting,” Dudrick said in an email. “It felt like a direct appeal to the American public, not a childish attack.”

Meanwhile, sophomore and president of College Republicans Adam Morys said he was not impressed with either candidate.

“Biden didn’t present any good arguments, and Trump was interrupting too much. Trump will have more success if he stays more disciplined and attacks Biden’s policies,” Morys said in an email.

The second presidential debate is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 15.

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About Alysa Guffey

Alysa is a junior pursuing a major in history with minors in digital marketing and journalism, ethics and democracy. While she calls Breen-Phillips her home on campus, she is originally from Indianapolis. She currently serves as the Notre Dame News Editor.

Contact Alysa