Train-Wreck Political Entertainment Is The New Normal For Presidential Debates

Biden and Trump went head-to-head in the first presidential debate. Emily Wade breaks down what can be concluded from the candidate’s sparsely-mentioned policy positions. 

Photo credit: Beta/AP/Morry Gash

Joe Biden and Donald Trump addressed each other for the first time publicly on the Case Western Reserve University campus in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace presided over an unusual debate, attempting to impose an inkling of the structure onto what might otherwise be called a series of chaotic character attacks, to the surprise of many, initiated by Biden and not Trump. 

Here are the main takeaways and positions on major issues raised by Wallace, important issues that were arguably undermined by the insult-politics employed by and the personalities of the candidates.

On The Supreme Court

Straight out of the gate, Chris Wallace turned his attention to the Supreme Court, asking Trump to defend his recent nomination and share his beliefs about where Barrett may lead America. “Elections have consequences,” remarked Trump, defending his choice to nominate Barrett while still in office. He briefly mentioned “liberal” affiliations Barrett has had in the past, largely evading the latter half of Wallace’s question. 

“The American people have a right to say who the Supreme Court nominee is,” Biden was quick to counter, before moving on to criticize Barrett for her opinion that sections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are unconstitutional. He addressed the public’s fears, presumptuously assuming Barrett will not be confirmed, stating confidently that Roe v Wade is on the ballot.

“You don’t know that’s on the ballot. Why is it on the ballot?” Trump was quick to respond, “There’s nothing happening there,” he insisted.  Biden’s criticism stood only to confirm Barrett’s position as a constitutionalist, devoted to the document’s neutral interpretation and administering equal justice under the law. 

Biden was asked directly by Wallace whether he would end the filibuster and pack the court, yet sidestepped his answer, claiming, “Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue… I’m not going to answer the question.” Wallace pressed no further. 

On Healthcare

Addressing the issue of healthcare, Wallace asked Trump about his failure to replace Obamacare after its repeal and suggested that Trump does not have a comprehensive plan. Trump nodded to his administrations’ work driving down the prices of pharmaceutical drugs, specifically mentioning insulin. On its functioning, Trump declared, “No matter how well you run Obamacare, it’s a disaster.” 

Trump spoke to his disapproval of the model itself, and the incentivization it promotes towards a government takeover of healthcare in the long-term. 

Biden harped on the “public option” component of Obamacare, intended for Americans already enrolled in Medicaid, purporting that private health insurance would be largely unaffected. 

Failing to respond meaningfully to Trump’s disagreements, Biden shrugged, “The fact is everything he’s saying so far, it’s simply a lie… Everybody knows he’s a liar.” Let the historic record show that 2020’s first presidential debate saw its first personal insult thrown by none other than Joe Biden. Next, as he claimed that Trump could have saved 100,000 lives by mandating masks in January, the discourse swung towards the coronavirus. 

On Coronavirus Pandemic

Wallace’s question on the subject asked each candidate to explain why he was the best choice for leading the country out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Not about to let Biden’s exaggerated claim slip by, Trump cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and member of the coronavirus task force, who steered the public away from masks in the early days of the virus. Closing the borders as early as he did not only tanked the economy, but also inspired harsh criticism of Trump’s decision. Biden himself tweeted on February 1, 2020, that Trump’s “record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering,” rendered him ill-equipped to lead the country through this crisis, insisting instead, “We need to lead the way with science.”

Fauci himself is quoted sharing with DC Spectrum News, “There is no reason for anyone in the United States, with regard to coronavirus, to wear a mask,” on February 14, 2020. A similar quote was given to CBS’s 60 Minutes on March 8, 2020, supporting the notion that Trump has, in fact, been following the science in developing his response to the novel coronavirus, contrary to Biden’s claims. 

Taking drastic measures to make resources readily available, including the allocation of US Navy ships to be used as hospitals outside of New York City, earned Trump praise from numerous governors in the early days of the pandemic. Now, Biden would have you believe, it was Trump’s incompetence alone that led to any and all problems Americans face today. “They give you good press, they give me bad press, because that’s the way it is, unfortunately. But I’ll tell you, Joe, you could have never done the job we did. You don’t have it in your blood,” Trump refuted.

Joe Biden responded, “The President has no plan.” Trump threw the punch back, claiming, “Biden was a disaster handling H1N1, his own Chief of Staff said so.” Trump did speak positively about a vaccine coming soon, mentioning communication with doctors and public health experts. However, as Biden pointed out, “This is the same guy who told you in April it’d be gone by Easter.” 

Trump raised concerns that the vaccine itself had been “politicized,” suspicious of the proximity of the election to the projected timeline for the vaccine creation. The distribution of this vaccine once it has been produced was another point of debate, touched on briefly. Biden predicts it will be a slow and lengthy process; Trump predicts it will be efficient and rapid. 

On the Economy

Like a substitute teacher, Wallace brought the two back to the point: Why should one prefer Trump’s “V-Shape” recovery model of the economy over Biden’s “K-Shape” recovery model? 

Trump said the economy is already doing better than had been predicted, promising more of that to come should he be reelected. Acknowledging the fact that the economy will have to recover from this period in time, Trump reminded the audience that the Obama-Biden Administration, inheriting the economy following the 2008 recession, oversaw what is now referred to as the slowest economic growth period since World War II. 

“There are fewer jobs now than when he became president,” Biden decried. It was unclear where Biden was placing the blame for these lost jobs, however, since the fact is, it was the coronavirus, and Trump’s swift response to it, that wrecked the economy. Biden never acknowledged the state of the pre-coronavirus economy. 

Pressed on his own plan and its financing, Biden replied, “The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward.” After being reminded of his own views on climate change by the moderator, Biden declared, “I don’t believe in the Green New Deal, I believe in the Biden Plan!” So, what is this Biden Plan? 

“Biden’s plan will hurt the economy,” Trump jumped in, explaining how it stipulates an increase of $4 Trillion in tax revenue, only affecting households earning $400,000 or more annually. Per Trump’s view, this would result in wealthy companies and individuals leaving the country, taking their wealth with them. Plunging further into financial insecurity on the cusp of a recession only steers the country more directly towards an economic depression. However, do remember that, per Biden’s view, this is purely conjecture. 

On Race and Violence

Regarding race issues in America, Wallace asked each of the candidates to advance his position as the most capable leader in handling division within our borders moving forward. 

Trump stood his ground in firm support of law enforcement and all things “law and order.” On the topic of critical race theory, Trump deemed it the idea a “radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place,” and stated, “I won’t teach people to hate our country.” 

Biden claimed that, “all [Trump] ever wants to do is divide people, not unite people at all.”  Trump responded with points from Biden’s legislative resume, including the 1994 Crime Bill, in which Trump highlighted Biden’s referral to African Americans as “superpredators.” Trump added, “you look back at [Biden’s] testimony over the years [Biden’s] called them a lot worse than that.” 

Trump also pointed out the fact that racial division was already pulsing through the veins of the nation well before Trump took office. He mentioned the incidents of unrest that stemmed from the issue of race in Ferguson, Oakland, and Baltimore, all of which occurred under the Obama-Biden administration.

Biden was not convinced. When asked whether or not he believes there are separate, unequal systems of justice in America, Biden replied, “There is systemic injustice in the country… law enforcement, education,” he replied. He encouraged the audience to remember that there are “bad apples.” Biden shared his views on how he might address the ‘bad apple’ problem, stating, “We’re going to work this out so we can change the way in which we have more transparency.” Rebutting Trump’s claims about the reality of critical race theory, Biden managed, “Nobody’s doing that. He’s just, he’s racist,” before moving on to push forth the idea that Trump looks down on all people unlike himself. Hope is not lost, however, as Biden assures, “There’s nothing we cannot do, if we do it together. We can take this on, and we can defeat racism.” One is left to assume that Biden believes critical race theory training is the way to do so, for no other concrete ideas were put forth. 

If you had thought before that Biden was aligning himself with calls for defunding the police, think again. During the debate, he placed himself “totally against defunding the police,” calling for, rather, a distribution of the funds already allotted to the police, emphasizing the various roles of psychologists and community policing. That is subject to change, by virtue of Biden’s track record. 

On Climate

Trump’s priorities with respect to the climate were clear. He emphasized “crystal clean air and water,” for America, as well as the integrity of American businesses. He believes one area in which we could incorporate meaningful change is the management of forest fires, citing European “forest cities,” in which regular, contained brush fires prevent massive forest fires. Trump said his decision to leave the Paris Accord was anchored in skyrocketing oil prices, in anticipation of the effect inflated energy costs would have not only on American businesses but also on the American people. “We are doing phenomenally, but I haven’t put down our businesses,” he shared. Trump brought up an important point: We are not the only players in this game, and simply because we choose to do the “right thing” does not mean other industrial world powers will have the same inclination. Trump brought the economic freedom of individuals to the forefront of the conversation, reminding the audience that our liberties as Americans are intrinsically tied to our individual freedoms within the free market. 

Biden, arguing for reentrance into the controversial Paris Accord, focused on climate problems, not within our borders, but globally, a perspective many young Americans find attractive today. He said of Trump’s views, “He’s absolutely wrong,” going on to claim that, as Vice President, he was able to drive the price of renewable energy below that of coal. When pressed further on what actions he might take regarding the climate in office, Biden shared his most tangible plan of the evening. He said, “We’ll say, ‘Here’s $20B… Stop tearing down the forests!’” He did not mention where that money would come from, or how exactly it would be distributed, highlighting just one more unattended detail of the Biden Plan. How’s that for a vision?

On Election Integrity 

Wallace concludes his role as moderator asking the candidates how confident Americans should be in the results of election day, given the unprecedented conditions of this election. Probing further, he asks if the American people can count on a peaceful transition of power once the results are verified. 

Trump brazenly opened his response with the accusation that “there’s been no transition from when I won… they came after me trying to do a coup; they came after me spying on my campaign.” 

The President called these efforts a “disgrace to the country,” and even claimed that Biden was responsible for conceiving of the idea for the Logan Act enacted against General Flynn, a claim supported by materials declassified earlier in the day by Director Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence.  

“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” Trump started. In explaining the difference between solicited and unsolicited ballots, he cited numerous instances of mail-in voting gone awry, from both elections of the past and the one currently in progress. He concludes, “If I see tens of thousands of ballots manipulated, I won’t accept it,” ‘it’ being the outcome of the election.

Biden turned to the camera and declared, “Let people vote.” He claimed, of course, that there is no connection between election fraud and mail-in ballots. “Trump is trying to scare people into thinking it will not be legitimate… He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.” 

Wallace then asked Biden how he would feel about the election going to the court, and what impact Barrett might have on the subsequent decision. Biden answered, “I’m concerned that any court would settle this.” He discussed the process through which ballots are verified, one which includes an affidavit and sworn testimony, per Biden’s description. Trump fired back that we will have “80M ballots swarming this system,” and he was not wrong about that. He questioned the system's capacity to handle such a large volume of highly-sensitive material, testing the level of confidence the public can hold in this system, despite Biden’s optimism. 

Take Away

On Tuesday night, millions of Americans tuned in to listen to the voices of our could-be leaders. All in all, they came away leaving just that on the stage: their voices. The content of their discourse was largely lost between back-and-forth sneering on behalf of both the candidates. In the following months, Biden and Trump have substantial work to do advocating for and communicating their unique visions of America’s future. 

One thing Trump may have held over Biden at the close of the first debate is his positive, Pro-America attitude. While Biden ruminated on the supposed failures of Trump and wallowed about the sorry state of the country, Trump boasted his accomplishments and promised more. Refusing to see negative undertones as more than a temporary setback in a period he believes to be laden with accomplishments, Trump’s attitude is one that seeks to reaffirm America’s core values. Biden’s outlook encouraged citizens to be skeptical, never settling until conditions are perfectly equitable and fair. In the end, Trump offered to the audience the unique opportunity to love America right now.  


 

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