The first 2020 presidential debate took place Tuesday evening in Cleveland, Ohio, between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, and it has already been labeled as the worst debate in U.S. history by those at home and abroad. Plagued by petty squabbling, the debate offered little to the American people in terms of discussing actual policy.
Presidential debates are meant to highlight the different policy points of the presidential nominees, allow candidates to express their beliefs on how the country should be run and provide a chance for candidates to win over the nearly 11% of voters who are still undecided, according to a recent poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.
This debate, however, offered little to none of these aspects.
The candidates repeatedly spoke over one another, interrupted the other’s time and engaged in behavior commonly attributed to undisciplined children. At times it seemed as if the moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace was the third person onstage, clashing with the two candidates over the bickering.
During the debate, an unprecedented number of interruptions took place. Biden interrupted Trump 49 times and Wallace 18 times for a total of 67 interruptions. Trump, not wanting to be outdone, interrupted Biden 71 times and Wallace 74 times for a total of 145 interruptions, according to an analysis by Fox News.
In doing so, they made themselves and the nation appear weak and lacking strong leadership.
On the international stage, leaders from across the world witnessed the debacle and had nothing good to say about the state of our political discourse.
Hu Xijin, editor of China’s state-backed Global Times, tweeted about the way in which the debate was viewed by our biggest international rival.
“The two political leaders of the U.S. obviously did not show an exemplary role to American people on how to engage in debates,” he said. “Such a chaos at the top of U.S. politics reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the U.S. political system.”
Even among our allies, the debate was ridiculed.
Bruce Wolpe, chief of staff for Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, lambasted the debate in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Hope was mugged at the worst presidential debate in history,” he said. “[The debate] was a horrible, disastrous, useless session that left viewers utterly disappointed.”
Unfortunately, these descriptions are accurate. Neither candidate properly described their policies or plans for the next four years because of the constant interruptions, leading to a very unfulfilling debate for anyone viewing for substance over spectacle.
The argumentative spectacle that took place should not become the norm for future debates. Presidential debates should focus on the policy stances that the candidates take rather than a popularity contest that is decided by who talks the most and the loudest.
Thankfully, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is considering changes to the debate system that should prevent this from happening again.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” according to a statement from the CPD. “The commission is ‘carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.’”
With the next presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15, it is important for the CPD to act quickly in determining what measures to take. When political debates spiral into disruptive arguments, neither candidate wins, and the country and its citizens are the ones who suffer the national and international ramifications.
Timothy Foley is a junior majoring in history and political science.