Takeaways for students from the first presidential debate

Nathan Lesch, Executive Editor

Starting just a few moments after 9 p.m. EST, the first presidential debate, hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic and moderated by Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, was, quite simply, disappointing. Wallace broke the debate up into six 15-minute sections delineated by topic. Instead of a civil discussion about the issues, the candidates—current President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—chose to talk over one another and, at times, insult one another’s family. While certainly difficult to sit through, the debate did touch upon important issues that will significantly impact college students in the near and distant future.

Wallace started the questioning with perhaps the most talked about issue of the last couple weeks: The nomination of a new Supreme Court justice to replace the late, great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneer of women’s rights. 

Back in 2016, the year of the previous presidential election cycle, President Barack Obama nominated Chief Justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Merrick Garland to fill the justiceship left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. The Republican majority Senate, headed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, refused to begin the nomination process, claiming that the next president should nominate their own candidate. They argued that by voting in the presidential election, the American people would indicate their own vision for the country’s future.

Fast forward to three weeks ago, a similar situation developed. A justice died during an election year, this time much closer to the presidential election date. Now, the question facing Trump and the Republican-led Senate is whether or not they will respect the precedent they set in 2016.

Trump will not respect that precedent. With only a month before the election, he wants to quickly push through his nomination, Amy Coney Barrett.

“We won the election,” Trump explained. “Elections have consequences.”

Biden, on the other hand, would like to wait for the next president, regardless of whomever they are, to nominate a candidate.

“The American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is and that say occurs when they vote for United States Senators and when they vote for the President of the United States,” explained Biden.

The ultimate outcome of this debate will have huge impacts on the future of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices are nominated for life—and Barrett, a conservative justice, is only 48 years old. She could potentially influence the court’s decisions for the next 30 or more years.

Influencing U.S. policy long after Trump exits the office of the presidency, regardless of whether or not he wins another term, is a key goal of his administration and McConnell. As of Sept. 29, Trump has confirmed 218 federal judges, a vast majority conservative and some more moderately right-wing. Although not democratically elected, our governmental system still allows these federal judges to exert considerable influence over U.S. policy through the power of judicial review. 

The debate continued with a discussion of the public health aspect of COVID-19 that was light on concrete plans and heavy on accusations and blaming. Trump defended his record and claimed that the major pharmaceutical companies would have a vaccine prepared in the near future. Biden emphasized his belief that Trump has had no coherent plan to address the coronavirus and also touched on Trump’s anti-intellectualism and distrust of basic science, but didn’t give the latter topic the air time it deserved. 

The conversation about the coronavirus bled into the next topic: the economy. For students graduating in the midst of one of the worst economic situations in the last 100 years, this section should have been of special interest.

Trump began by promoting this as a strength of his tenure. He noted that the economy—as measured by the stock market—was doing well prior to the coronavirus and claimed that his response to the virus was sufficient. Keeping the economy “closed” any longer would cause too much suffering and drive many people’s mental health to deteriorate, according to Trump. Further, Trump believes the economy will rebound quickly, recovering in a V-shaped manner.

Biden disagreed, instead bringing up the extreme growth of wealth inequality during COVID-19, thus indicating he believes the economy will make a K-shaped recovery where the rich recover faster than the poor.

He said: “The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well. Billionaires have made another $300 billion because of his profligate tax proposal, and he only focused on the market. But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working class towns in America, how well are you doing?”

This is an incredibly important point to stress. Young adults are entering an American society with extreme wealth inequality.

“Wealth inequality in America has grown tremendously from 1989 to 2016, to the point where the top 10% of families ranked by household wealth (with at least $1.2 million in net worth) own 77% of the wealth ‘pie,’” according to Ana Kent, Lowell Ricketts and Ray Boshara of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “The bottom half of families ranked by household wealth (with $97,000 or less in net worth) own only 1% of the pie.”

For students, this should be especially concerning. Wealth inequality is tied to a number of economic bads and, in fact, Generation Z students have a real possibility, on average, of being worse off than their parents were.

After that brief glimpse of a relevant, important conversation about a key issue in American society, the candidates again reverted to squabbling, wasting precious time.

Racial issues were the next topic Wallace tried to get the candidates to address. There were a couple highlights.

Both candidates called the other a racist. Trump turned a question about resolving racial inequities into a soliloquy about how we should police more—and followed that up with the claim that racial sensitivity training is, in fact, racist against whites. Biden said he was opposed to defunding the police and, instead, recommended that police receive more financial support, have “psychologist[s] or psychiatrist[s]” accompany them when responding to calls and go back to community policing. Further, Biden claimed that Trump stoked racial tensions.

Perhaps what’s most crucial to note here—for everyone that does not want violence and fascism, that is—is that Trump refused to unequivocally condemn white supremecists.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” said Trump. “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 debate continued with a question about why each candidate believed they should be elected and not their opponent. This bit started straightforwardly, with each candidate outlining parts of their platform. While several topics from previous sections did come up here again, Biden’s statements about his son Hunter’s drug problem proved refreshing and validating to all those fighting a similar disease.

“My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it,” said Biden. “And I’m proud of him, I’m proud of my son.”

The second to last topic the debate covered was environmental damage. In-and-of-itself, this was unique—environmental concerns rarely come up in presidential debates.

When Trump was asked if he believed in anthropogenic climate change, he replied: “I think a lot of things do [cause climate change], but I think to an extent, yes. I think to an extent, yes, but I also think we have to do better management of our forest. Every year I get the call. California’s burning, California’s burning.”

This inability for Trump to merely say that he does, in fact, believe in climate change is hugely problematic and should worry every college student. Current students and their children are the people that will be dealing with climate change in the U.S.—not Trump or other members of the largely geriatic government. Further delaying action addressing climate change will allow massive, irreversible environmental changes to occur.

Biden, on the other hand, proposed the $2 trillion Biden Plan, which, if implemented, would be the most ambitious environmental spending plan in decades. This plan, still, is quite short of the $10 trillion Green New Deal sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) last year.

Soon after these important points, the debate again devolved into the candidates talking over one another until Wallace managed to bring it back together to talk about the final topic he had prepared for the evening: electoral integrity.

Biden got the first word this time. His stance on the election was quite clear. As many people as possible should vote and he will respect the election’s outcome, regardless of whether or not he wins.

“Show up and vote,” Biden implored the American people. “You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote.”

Trump, in turn, started out his statements with a condemnation of “crooked Hillary Clinton,” then went into his traditional refrain that wide scale mail-in ballots would encourage massive fraud, a claim repeatedly rejected by the FBI.

Perhaps the most problematic thing Trump said—across the entire debate—was his last major point, which he gave in response to Wallace asking if he would respect the results of the election in November.

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

With this statement, Trump sows seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of the election in a way that no major candidate has done. This should worry all college students. Trump is attempting to undermine the basic pillars of freedom and democracy in the U.S.

In total, this debate, as brutal as it was to sit through, still covered important ground. Both candidates clarified their positions on issues that will have huge impacts on current students and young adults. 

Hopefully, if they are able to move forward with the next few debates, the candidates will be a bit better behaved and show us what a president should look like.