Scheffler: What can we learn by comparing the 2016 presidential debate with today?

Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016 could easily be replicated against Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden.

Scheffler: What can we learn by comparing the 2016 presidential debate with today?

Nick Scheffler

Joe Biden has unknowingly flung himself into the front-runner position of the Democratic primary after a surprisingly strong Super Tuesday performance. Following a triumphant victory in South Carolina and a slew of endorsements from the other centrist candidates, Biden is now the most likely candidate to be debating Donald Trump at on Sept. 29, 2020. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both appeal to the moderate base of the Democratic Party and share similar political track records, so looking back at 2016 may give us an idea of what to expect if “Skin-falls-off-bones” faces “That’s-skin-on-his-bones?” come fall. 

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place Sept. 26, 2016 at Hofstra University and was moderated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt. It was the most-watched presidential debate in television history with an estimated 84 million viewers.

After rewatching it, I noticed there are many strategies Trump used during the debate against Clinton which he could replicate against Biden. First, Trump attacked Clinton from the left on many issues. He constantly criticized her for supporting the Iraq War, supporting the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and calling the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard of trade deals.” Trump can, and more than likely will, criticize Biden on these things, too. But Trump’s unexpectedly wholesome Superbowl commercial about commuting the prison sentence of drug offender Alice Johnson suggests that he won’t stop on just war and trade. In the ’90s, Biden was a main architect of tough on crime legislation which critics say helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s Black communities. Trump may add this to his arsenal of attacks against Biden’s record and say his commuting of drug offenders is cleaning up Biden’s mistakes. 

Trump used his showmanship to his advantage. He has a quick wit in front of the camera, he seems extremely comfortable and, worst of all, he can be funny. I feel like Trump believes if you say anything with enough confidence, it’ll seem like the truth. One of my favorite moments in the debate was when he used “a friend of mine who builds plants” as a source to establish credibility for his claims about corporations moving manufacturing jobs to Mexico. To give credit where credit is due, Clinton did a good job of matching him. She was quick with some retorts and could even throw in a joke or two. The same cannot be said for Biden whose cognitive abilities have clearly deteriorated since his time as vice president. There is evidence of him struggling to form coherent sentences, being confused on where he’s campaigning and telling strange stories of little kids touching his hairy legs in a pool. 

Trump constantly deflected any attack on himself to Clinton. When Holt asked Trump about his tax returns, Trump asked about Clinton’s emails. When Clinton mentioned election interference, Trump mentioned how the Democratic National Committee conspired against Bernie Sanders for her. He painted a picture of himself as morally superior to Clinton, saying her negative ads against him were horrible and how she once referred to young Black men as “super predators.” Trump even went as far as alluding to the Lewinsky scandal when he said, “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.’” Trump could use the same strategy against Biden. If Biden mentions how Trump was impeached, Trump will mention that Hunter Biden’s conspicuous affiliation with a Ukrainian energy company was at the center of that impeachment. 

Of course, Biden and Clinton are different people, and circumstances have changed since 2016. But I have a friend who knows history, and he told me, “history tends to repeat itself.”