On September 30, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), in partnership with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), co-hosted the first of a series of events on the U.S. Presidential Election. This event was held the day after the first presidential debate between President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Sasakawa USA and FMC welcomed The Honorable Martin Frost (D-TX, 1979-2005), The Honorable Tim Hutchinson (R-AR, 1993-2003) and The Honorable Tim Wirth (D-CO, 1987-1993) to discuss what took place during the first presidential debate. Attendees included distinguished former members of congress, members of the Washington, D.C. diplomatic corps, Japanese media and businesses, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. FMC’s President-Elect The Honorable L.F. Payne gave opening remarks and moderated the event.
Moderated Debate Discussion
As the first of four events, Rep. Payne began by announcing the next webinar, to be held on October 8th. Following this announcement, Rep. Payne turned the floor over to the speakers, asking them to provide briefs remarks on their initial reactions to the first presidential debate. Overall, the speakers agreed that the debate was chaotic, with Senator Hutchinson describing it as a “street brawl,” and Rep. Frost and Senator Wirth both viewing President Trump’s performance as off-putting for undecided voters. They all agreed that for the next presidential debate, they hoped to see the moderator be able to mute candidates’ mics that are not speaking during the other’s presentation.
The speakers’ agreement on the hectic nature of the first debate is where their agreement ceased. Rep. Frost opined that President Trump’s chaotic presentation sacrificed a lot of the goodwill he had accumulated in the weeks leading up to the event, such as accepting the nomination and the peace deal in the Middle East. Senator Wirth had similar views but explained that President Trump’s performance would have a particularly negative impact on his ability to retain votes from suburban women. Senator Hutchinson disagreed with both and explained that this debate performance would likely yield a similar reaction to presidential debates in the 2016 election. He added that during the 2016 election all experts believed Hillary Clinton won the debates, but what President Trump had to say resonated with the American people. So, Senator Hutchinson stated that it is likely that his performance and messages will play well in red states, and that overall, the debate performance cannot be graded until public opinion polls are released.
With these initial remarks concluded, Rep. Payne asked the panelists to discuss their thoughts on the strategy of each candidate and the extent to which they succeeded. First, Senator Hutchinson responded, reiterating that as public opinion polls are released, the extent of success will become clear. However, he added that VP Biden did a good job of showing his ability to debate without any gaffes whereas President Trump played to his base and attempted to drive a wedge between moderates and progressives from the Democratic Party. For Rep. Frost, he stated that VP Biden had a good performance and showed he could be president. He also thought that President Trump’s decision to avoid the question on his federal taxes and not allow VP Biden to finish his statements would have a negative impact on the views of independent voters. Overall, in response to Senator Hutchinson’s remarks on Trump playing to his base, Rep. Frost noted that President Trump’s base cannot be pushed any closer to him than they already are.
Next, based on the panelists’ views that the debate was handled poorly, Rep. Payne asked the panel if they thought it would have a positive impact on the way future debates are handled. Senator Hutchinson was the first to respond again and succinctly explained that he believed a single moderator was fine as it is unlikely that a panel would have had much more success. He did, however, reiterate earlier points that a microphone “kill switch” may be necessary for when time runs out. Rep. Frost agreed that moderating a debate like this is very tough and Chris Wallace did a very good job given the circumstances but agreed that there must be a way to turn off the mics. He hoped that the next debates have a format that allows for an orderly debate. Senator Wirth agreed that Chris Wallace was a good choice and usually does a good job, but perhaps he intended to allow the American people to not only see the substance but also the behavior of the candidates. In that attempt, he, unfortunately, lost control, so Senator Wirth stated his hopes that next time the moderator can better reign President Trump in.
Rep. Payne then shifted to ask the panelists their thoughts on VP Biden’s statement that he is the Democratic Party, President Trump’s similar statement, and lastly, their thoughts on divisions between and within both parties. Senator Hutchinson responded by stating that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) might disagree with VP Biden on declaring himself the face of the party; however, Senator Hutchinson also expressed his amazement in President Trump’s control over the Republican party. Rep. Frost quickly responded that he did not believe VP Biden’s declaration was a big deal because historically the candidate is the declared spokesperson of their party, whereas Senator Wirth explained that he did not believe VP Biden would ever use such phrasing again. Instead, Senator Wirth said that he will emphasize that he is the leader and will therefore pull the factions together.
Moving on to the next topic, Rep. Payne explained that he has recently heard a lot of people say that they like VP Biden but cannot bring themselves to vote for him because it will push the U.S. to be a more socialist country. With this in mind, he asked the panelists if they thought there was a plan by the Trump team to address this during the debate. Senator Hutchinson began the responses saying that this year’s presidential election is very close and much closer than polls show right now and it is likely that President Trump will perform better on election day than what the polls show. Rep. Frost added that he believes voters should watch and see which Republican senate candidates will show up when President Trump visits their state. As an example of this, he presented the case of Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign where he visited Austin and the only Democrat who visited him was Rep. Frost despite there being other Democrats in the state, due to the belief that he had no chance of winning. Rep. Frost believes that something similar will happen when President Trump visits different areas of the country.
Rep. Payne then noted that there was very little discussion of global interest during the first debate, except for climate change. Despite there being no mention of foreign affairs in the debate, Rep. Payne addressed the issue of new leadership in Japan, due to the resignation of Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga’s rise to replace him as prime minister. He then asked Rep. Frost and Senator Hutchinson if they had any thoughts on the matter. Rep. Frost started by explaining that the U.S. relationship with Japan will be strong no matter who is the president, due to the strong relationship that the U.S. now experiences with Japan. He did however note that he hopes foreign policy is a major focus of a future debate. Senator Hutchinson similarly noted that the U.S. relationship with Japan is essential and critical and he, therefore, does not view it as changing. He agreed with Rep. Frost that it was strange that foreign policy was not a subject of the debate and that President Trump could have listed his foreign policy accomplishments but did not.
To continue the discussion on foreign policy, Rep. Payne then noted that millions of people from outside the U.S. also tuned in for the debate. He then asked the panel what they would say to those outside the country about the debate and what it means for democracy in the U.S. and the world. Senator Wirth responded first, saying that the debate was likely a reflection of what the international audience sees as chaos occurring in the U.S. Senator Wirth recalled during his time in the U.S. Department of State that during most discussions other states were always interested in the position of the U.S. but that is no longer the case. Senator Hutchinson then presented his view that the debate showed the world how divided the U.S. currently is, and that he believes U.S. allies still love the U.S. but are deeply puzzled and concerned by what they saw during the debate. Rep. Frost ended the discussion by noting that President Trump has been incredibly divisive, and although people around the world look to the U.S. for leadership, there has not been any leadership provided for some time.
Following the last points made by Rep. Frost, Rep. Payne opened the Q&A. The first question came from Tsuneo Watanabe, Senior Fellow for International Peace and Security Development at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Mr. Watanabe noted how surprising the debate was for the Japanese audience given how uncivilized it was and asked if future debates will be structured to allow for more civil discourse and whether or not the campaigns will change. Senator Wirth responded to Mr. Watanabe’s questions by explaining that management for the next election must change and a buzzer for the moderator to stop interruptions is also needed. Once these changes are made, he continued, the Biden campaign will be relatively happy with the changes, whereas the Trump campaign will have to work to keep President Trump more tightly scripted so that he gets his message across. Senator Wirth ended his response by saying that he hoped foreign policy would become a topic of the next debate, as the U.S. has become known as an alliance destroyer rather than alliance builder, and that climate change might also have a clearer focus.
The next question came from, Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, former Japanese Ambassador to the United States (2008-2012). He noted that the Democratic Party claims that they will be tough on China, especially on human rights, but on the platform it is explained that they will not engage in a tariff or trade war with China. Continuing, he said that moving from confrontational competition to controlled competition is very different from the Trump administration’s policy, and although all politicians must pretend to be tough, will either party be tough on China after the election. Rep. Frost responded first and noted that the Democratic Party has been very concerned with intellectual property theft and other stealing that is being done by China and therefore those topics will be a major part of the Biden campaign. He also noted that he could not answer the question about tariffs, but VP Biden should be asked something regarding tariffs in the next debate. Senator Hutchinson responded by noting that throughout the remainder of this campaign President Trump will push China as a tough issue and push that VP Biden will not be tough on China. He said that President Trump has been tough on China and as a dealmaker will push hard for a tariff agreement and will likely be successful in this endeavor. Senator Wirth ended the responses to this question by noting how this is another example of the need for the U.S. to return to a cooperative world and not a confrontational world. He said that a Biden administration would return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and work towards solidifying relationships in Asia to deal with some of the issues with China, which has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since WWII. He ended by saying the U.S. must return to this strategy to be successful.
The next question was asked by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA, 2003-2015), who first noted that he also was not happy with the overall tone of the debate. Therefore, he asked the panelists if they think the first debate will push the needle at all, in terms of supporters for either candidate. Senator Hutchinson was first to respond by noting that President Trump’s strong personality is both his greatest strength and weakness. He noted that in 2016, President Trump was declared the loser of every debate, but still won the election, and a similar response is happening by the media for this election. Rep. Frost responded by saying that the key is to look at the midwestern states. During this election, he continued, VP Biden has a much greater margin of support than what Hillary Clinton had during the 2016 election. He concluded by stating that he believes VP Biden will continue to do well in the midwestern states due to the suburban vote and suburban women.
The penultimate question was asked by Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, President and Chairman of Sasakawa USA. He succinctly asked if the panelists could quickly summarize where things are on the House and Senate side of the election. Rep. Frost first responded by saying that he believes the Democrats will hold the House and only need a net gain of four to gain control of the Senate, something he believes to be very doable. Senator Hutchinson agreed that the Democrats will maintain control of the House, but that the Senate has many tough races and will not be as easy to call. He noted that many of the Republicans facing reelection this year are seasoned politicians and although these will be very tough races, and the Senate is in play, the Republicans will maintain control of the Senate. Senator Wirth agreed with both panelists that the Senate race will be close, but the House should not be overlooked, especially regarding the 12th amendment and the complexity of the U.S. electoral college. Rep. Frost concluded discussion on the question by remarking that he believes the election will be resolved in the electoral college and will therefore not go to the House to be decided. He said it is important that there is a legitimate election so that a clear leader can be named through the electoral college so as not to involve the House.
The final question was asked by Rep. Lawrence Smith (D-FL, 1983-1993), who began his question by noting that the debasing of the office of the presidency by the president was appalling. He asked, what face does this show the American people and the rest of the world that President Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose. Senator Wirth first responded by noting that former members of congress have gathered to discuss this issue and created an organization for election integrity. He explained that it is non-partisan, focused on its mission, and will be announced in early October. Senator Hutchinson ended the responses by noting that when the integrity of the office of the presidency is discussed it is important to say that President Trump does not behave well, however, he noted that President Trump was called a clown and insulted by VP Biden multiple times during the debate, so if there is a discussion on the presidency’s integrity there is plenty of finger-pointing to go around.
Rep. Payne concluded the event by thanking all in attendance and noting that this was the first in a series of debate analyses, with the next one being scheduled for after the Vice-Presidential Debate on October 8th at 9:00 am EDT. Sasakawa USA is grateful to Rep. Frost, Senator Hutchinson, and Senator Wirth for participating in this discussion and to FMC and Rep. Payne for their partnership.
For information on Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, go here.
Summarized by Benjie Canady, Associate Program Officer, Sasakawa USA