Expectations for a stimulating presidential debate were low. In a strange spectacle of mutual mockery and derision, it’s safe to say that Donald Trump and Joe Biden met them today in Ohio.
Without exception, this was the most chaotic presidential debate I’ve ever seen. The acrimony and antagonism were plain to see. The President was unrestrained, and has probably done himself a disservice. Biden weathered the barrages that he would surely have expected, and held his own. No doubt Trump supporters will be savouring it as a win.
The real question is how much did this debate actually move the political needle? Many Americans have already decided how they’ll vote. It’s believed that one million have already cast ballots.
At this point in the campaign, the debates give the candidates a chance to energise their respective bases and to mop up the undecided voters. Nothing is a lock.
From the minute the two men walked on stage, it was clear each had little regard for the other. Biden acknowledged the audience and moderator from Fox, Trump did not.
Trump continuously ran roughshod over the proceedings. It was a characteristic display of his aggressive and brash impulses. He repeatedly ignored the moderator, who at times was reduced to being a hapless spectator, and ruthlessly made personal attacks against Biden’s son in attempts to drag the discussion away from policy issues. It was classic Trump.
Trump continuously ran roughshod over the proceedings. It was a characteristic display of his aggressive and brash impulses.
Biden attempted to stay on message. He aimed his pitch at important swing states that might decide the outcome of the election: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He appealed to African-Americans, women and the working classes.
Even so, at times he fumbled his message. Let’s be clear, Biden did not give an entirely inspired performance. Despite this, his vice-presidential image was on show, and he wasn’t intimidated by Trump.
Biden’s best move through the debate was to ignore his opponent and look down the camera. It provided a sense of him looking past the noise and talking directly to the individual voter. Trump failed to do this. He remained fixed on his competitor in a shameless display of un-statesmanlike conduct.
It’s possible that Trump’s unrestrained conduct today will have alienated voters who may have been considering voting for him.
His failure to condemn white supremacy will not have been missed by African-Americans. With race relations in an appalling state, this may be enough to motivate voters of all non-white backgrounds to vote for Biden. It may prove decisive.
There’ll be much analysis of this farcical event in the coming days, weeks and months. So, let’s briefly look at some of the debate points.
The pandemic’s devastating impact on the US is obvious, yet the President continued to downplay its severity. He chose to blame China after Biden asked him to who he could justify his conduct regarding families that had lost members to the virus. Biden told him to “get off the golf course and save lives”. But Trump brushed it off as not his problem.
Modelling shows that COVID-19 is on the rise in the US. This could complicate the integrity of the electoral process in the coming weeks.
With the death of liberal champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump has a chance to successfully install another judge on the Supreme Court. This will stack the court with a 6-3 margin in favour of conservatives.
Biden argued that filling this should be held off until after the election. Trump claims that as he won the last election, he’s entitled to, and will, proceed with the appointment.
Biden capitalised on this to engage with female voters. He argued that Trump’s nomination would result in women losing the right to choose; that women’s rights more broadly would be restricted by a conservative Supreme Court. He also claimed it would see Trump abolish Obamacare, threatening the healthcare access of more than 20 million Americans.
With racial unrest erupting across the country under Trump’s watch, this was always going to be a heated issue.
Biden spoke about equality and fairness under the US Constitution. He attacked Trump for his support of the Klu Klux Klan, and for referring to the far right as “very fine people”. Biden further accused the President of being a dog whistler – an agent of foment for racial division and hatred. Biden knows this issue is crucial in gaining the African-American vote.
Trump rebutted by stating Biden treated the black community worse than anyone else. He didn’t advance a cause; instead, he accused Biden of being soft on law enforcement, and of being supported by the radical left. This is an effective and key Trump tactic – deride the opponent, and twist the narrative.
Significantly, Trump failed to condemn the extreme right and white supremacists when asked to do so by the moderator. He chose to attack the left and the socialists that he argues are bringing down the country.
The debate offered no indication of either man being able to bridge the societal divisions in the US. Trump’s rhetoric against women of colour and immigrants may not be palatable to many, but his base will lap it up.
When the debate turned to the question of Trump paying only US$750 in federal taxes, he sidestepped the issue. He claimed he paid “millions and millions” in taxes. But Biden saw his chance and argued that Trump paid less tax than school teachers.
Trump dismissed the issue and embarked on a personal attack of Biden’s son, and his activities in Ukraine and Russia.
The issue of the electoral outcome is shaping to be critical. Trump is making plenty of noise about the process, in particular postal ballots, being rigged. To that end, if Biden wins, it needs to be by a clear margin.
Biden claims there was “no evidence of mail-in ballots being manipulated”. He argued that COVID-19 necessitates postal ballots more than ever. He also said that people must be able to vote in person, and that they should vote early.
In seeking to circumvent Trump’s attempt to cast the process as illegitimate, Biden implored the American public that “he cannot stop you from determining the outcome of this election”.
“If we get the votes, he has to go,” said Biden.
Trump refuted this by stating that “ballots are a disaster”. He went further, claiming “this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen”. He followed through by suggesting of the outcome, “we might not know for months”.
If that’s the case, the US will be in uncharted constitutional waters. What then happens? Trump didn’t say. And there’s the problem – Trump refuses to say he’ll accept an electoral loss.
Trump persisted with hitting Biden personally. When the former vice-president was making his claim about COVID, he mentioned Trump had to get smarter, or more people would die.
Trump saw his chance. In a clear move to denigrate his opponent, he claimed Biden graduated lowest in class, adding, “don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me. There’s nothing smart about you, Joe.”
True to form, Trump attacked Biden’s son, Hunter, claiming he’d profited from Ukraine and Russia. While attacking Trump on the military, Biden emotionally defended his son Beau, who had served with honour in the armed forces.
As he was pitching to the military voters, Trump came at him with a curveball. He interrupted, saying he was talking about his other son. Biden simply stared into the camera. Without balking, he said what most parents would – he was proud of his son for overcoming his problems, drug habit included. It was another moment where Biden, genuinely, sought to connect with everyday families.
It provided the defining point of difference between the characters of each man.
There were no real winners here. The loser in this unedifying debate was the United States. Unfortunately, in the absence of a clear Biden win, this election will probably further damage the socio-political fabric of the country.
Trump doesn’t have the advantage of being the “new guy”. He’s had some serious domestic problems on his watch. He was already facing a backlash over racial issues, but his ineptitude regarding COVID-19 is hard to ignore.
Though he skirts these issues with little apparent regard, he’ll face a reckoning with the American public on 3 November, when he’ll be vindicated or vanquished.
Given the farcical conduct of President Trump, it is, indeed, likely to be the only debate. Nobody expected elegant debate or inspired oration.
Biden was unremarkable, but it was Trump’s bombast that made the former look more composed. Perhaps even more presidential? Trump wants to win his second term, perhaps at any cost.
This contest was a sad indictment on how much US politics has atrophied in recent years.
The ancient Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes would surely be laughing in his grave at the bizarre political theatre of this debate. How much it’s encouraged people to vote remains to be seen. The only certainty is that with five weeks left to run, this election still has a long, long way to go.