Last night, the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took place, after a year marked by larger polemics such as the coronavirus pandemic and rising protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Biden was predicted to attack Trump on his handling of the coronavirus response and history of appealing to a white nationalist base. Meanwhile, many expected Trump to accuse Biden of pandering to a ‘far-left agenda’, his record as VP, and on allegations towards Hunter Biden. It was an opportunity for both men to appeal to undecided voters. So, what happened?
Gone was decorum and engagement with ideas, replaced with an incoherent verbal slap fight with shocking statements and accusations. Trump went on the attack, steamrolling over Biden and Chris Wallace, and employed his usual tactics of interruption, accusing of fake news, and deflecting direct questions. Biden attempted to appeal to voters, speaking to the camera directly, and criticising Trump’s record more than explaining his own, responding to Trump’s interruptions and accusations with smiles and head shaking.
What are political commentators saying?
A debate marked by interruptions, mostly from President Trump, it was a savage and soul-crushing watch, and the response of political commentators has not been positive. CBS News described the event as “messy”, the BBC “chaotic”, The Guardian even labelled it “a national humiliation”.
Trump received the majority of the criticism, fact checkers finding high levels of misleading, exaggerated, and false claims. Biden was able to make less of an impact when responding to Trump’s domineering rhetoric, but when given the chance to speak appeared slow but direct. It’s unclear if anyone truly won this debate, but it’s fair to say Trump lost it more.
The Supreme Court
Trump defended his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, describing a presidential obligation to fill the vacancy in the supreme court, and reaffirmed his desire to fill the seat before the election. Biden argued that, as voting had already started, the American people deserved to have a say on the nominee (neglecting to mention that Republican senators argued that a supreme court justice should not be appointed in an election year in 2016).
Biden quickly focused on the Affordable Care Act, saying that Trump would cost millions of Americans healthcare. The current president claimed he would replace Obamacare, but did not describe an alternative, with clashes over Roe vs Wade and on private vs public health care options bringing coming to the fore.
Biden used Trump’s COVID record against him, pointing out the 200,000+ deaths, Trump’s interview with Bob Woodward contradicting his public statements, and his comments about injecting bleach and that the virus would disappear in April. Trump (repeating the dog whistle ‘China Virus’) denied responsibility, blaming Democrat states for their high death rate. He also accused Biden of wanting to completely shut down the country and tank the economy if elected.
Biden rightly claimed that Trump had not been following scientific advice (which the current president denies). According to Trump, there is evidence on both sides about the effectiveness of masks, and falsely claimed there was no medical threat from his campaign events. He seemingly resorted to criticising Biden on the handling of the Swine Flu 2009-2010 pandemic, though, strangely, Biden neglected to mention that the Trump administration in fact discarded an Obama administration pandemic plan in 2018.
Whereas Trump described the economic growth from before COVID-19 (pointing out his created jobs and defending his tax cuts), Biden was quick to point out that billionaires made more money during the pandemic whilst many lost their jobs.
The New York Times report, which claims that Trump only paid $750 dollars in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, was brought up by Wallace and pressed on by Biden (who had released his tax returns earlier that day). Trump claimed he paid millions in taxes, though failed to back such statements up with evidence. He also mentioned the accusations that Joe Biden’s son Hunter received money from Russia whilst Biden was Vice President, which Biden claimed was discredited.
Race and violence in our cities
Trump claimed that he had done more for African-Americans than any other president, reaffirming his desire to be a ‘law and order’ candidate. Happy to have used the national guard to break up violent protests, he even accused the violence to be a result of left-wing activists. Biden criticised Trump’s gassing of peaceful protests in Washington, as well as the 2017 Charlottesville rally, Trump’s infamous claim that there were “fine people on both sides”, and the death of Heather Heyer at the hand of white supremacists.
Trump criticised Biden’s voting for the 1994 crime bill, and for not encouraging democratic state governors to use the national guard to break up riots. Biden presented himself as pro-police, dismissing calls to defund the police, but that the “bad apples” needed to be rooted out. Trump claimed that racial sensitivity training is itself racist, claiming it taught people to “hate our country”. And, in a shocking moment, when asked directly, he refused to condemn white supremacist groups.
Trump defended his pre-COVID achievements; boosting the economy, appointing judges, and creating jobs. Biden condemned Trump’s encouragement of violence, economic policies that benefited the 1%, and called him ‘Putin’s Puppy’. When describing Trump’s labelling of dead soldiers as ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’, the two emotionally clashed over Biden’s sons, including Beau Biden who died of brain cancer in 2015.
The discussion quickly turned to climate change, where Trump described his climate approach as wanting ‘clean water and clean air’ and defended his withdrawal from the Paris agreement, wanting a balance between environmental and business interests. He claimed science isn’t conclusive about climate change, and that the California forest fires were due to forest mismanagement. Biden described his plan to create climate jobs and lower emissions by 2035, whilst criticising Trump’s deregulations. He distanced himself from the Green New Deal, saying that his plan would be focused on the economy.
The integrity of the election
Trump doubled down on his claim that mail-in ballots would lead to fraudulent results and that it may result in severely delayed election results. Biden argued that FBI and Intelligence groups have said there is little chance of mailed votes being tampered with and that this has not been contested until this election.
Trump accused Democrats of attacking him in the early days of his presidency, repeating his claim that the Obama administration spied on his campaign. Wallace asked both men to commit to not declaring victory preemptively and to encourage peace. Biden agreed to both, promising to respect the outcome of the election.
Trump encouraged his supporters to watch closely at the polls, directly telling the far-right group ‘Proud Boys’ to “stand back and stand by”.