Ruth Fremson / The New York Times

Cornellians tuned into Tuesday's tumultuous presidential debate.

October 1, 2020

Campus Political Leaders Agree: First Presidential Debate Marred by Insolent Behavior and Little Decorum

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While some Cornellians watched last night’s presidential debate through Zoom watch parties, difficulties hearing candidates likely wasn’t due to internet connection — the debate descended into a verbal mosh pit of lies and undue overtures mere minutes after starting.

At one highly-circulated point, Biden told Trump to “Just shut up, man.” At another, Trump falsely lamented that Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal would “take out the cows.”

Tuesday night’s debate also saw the president lie about the United States’ ability to conduct the election, his climate change and economic records and his support from law enforcement.

On campus, in Collegetown and across the nation, some Cornellians in politically-involved groups tuned into the debate, many through Zoom watch parties.

Polis, a non-partisan pre-government society on campus, and Black Students United co-hosted a Zoom watch party. The Cornell Republicans encouraged members to meet in small groups to view the debate, President Weston Barker ’21 wrote in an email. The Cornell Democrats also hosted a Zoom after the debate to share their thoughts.

Barker, president of the Cornell Republicans, who have not released election endorsements, acknowledged Trump’s unconventional debating style but said the debate “did not defy expectations” for either candidate. In 2016, the group declined to endorse Trump, and the New York Federation of College Republicans temporarily kicked out the club for doing so.

“To some, that breach of decorum is welcome in an era of teleprompter politicians,” Barker wrote. “To others, that breach is discouraging insofar as it can hurt the ability of both candidates to get their points across.”

Jonathan Davydov ’21, president of Polis, said the debate showcased a lack of decorum in U.S. politics. “It’s indicative of a larger decay in our polity,” he said.

During the debate, when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacist violence, Trump appeared to struggle with an answer. He told the Proud Boys, a white supremacist hate group, to “stand back and stand by,” instead of condemning the group. In response, Barker wrote that the Cornell Republicans, “in the strongest terms, condemn white supremacy and any and all acts of domestic terrorism.”

“There should have been a much stronger and much less equivocal condemnation,” Barker  added.

After the first debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates said on Wednesday that they would implement “tools to maintain order” in the coming debates. One option the commission is weighing is muting candidate’s microphones, the Associated Press reported.

“We felt that his behavior was childish and unpresidential,” wrote Geneva Saupe ’21, political director of the Cornell Democrats. “It reflected a lack of empathy and seriousness.”

Saupe wrote that Biden demonstrated “the strength of the Democratic party” when addressing the pandemic, economic recovery, climate change and healthcare.

During the debate, Trump repeatedly told Biden he “lost the left” after Biden took a more moderate policy line than many of his progressive primary challengers. While Biden called for police reform in the debate, he also called for funding to be increased to local departments to include “on-call psychiatrists,” contrary to the calls for police defunding that groups like Black Lives Matter have demanded.

Saupe said that while Biden is “an imperfect candidate,” the Cornell Democrats will continue to “remain committed to holding him accountable on issues such as policing.”

“Joe Biden may not have been our first choice,” Saupe continued. “However, he is now our best choice.”

Saupe also criticized the job of debate moderator Wallace, a veteran journalist with Fox News. In future debates, Saupe said she wants moderators to move the focus to policy, specifically, climate change policy.

The next debate will be between vice presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence in Salt Lake City. The University of Utah will host the debate on Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. eastern time. Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, will moderate.

Trump and Biden will face off next on Oct. 15 at 9 p.m. eastern time in Miami. Steve Scully, political editor at C-SPAN, will moderate.