At The First US Presidential Debate, Joe Biden Failed To Take Down Donald Trump
In the first minutes of the most watched and awaited American Presidential debate in recent history, US President Donald Trump said to the moderator: “I guess I’m debating you, not him (Biden) but that’s okay I’m not surprised”. Between Biden’s several hiccups and Trump’s blatant lies, it became clear in the first few minutes that the debate will be adrift of structure and direct responses. This was another night of Presidential no holds barred debate marred by chaos.
The conversation on healthcare descended into a different level of chaos. “Will you shut up man?”, said the 78-years-old former Vice President while facing constant interruptions from Trump. Biden fought ugly. He was trying to pin Trump’s inability to draw up a suitable alternative to Obamacare but the President’s strategy was simple: don’t let Biden complete a single sentence. Trump interrupted, ‘’The people understand, Joe. For 47 years, you’ve done nothing.’’ For an incredibly crucial issue, there was little to no content worthy debate on healthcare.
Then arrived the moment which highlighted a key difference in the election. That Biden has made pandemic the most pressing issue of his campaign, while Trump has downplayed it on the campaign trail became clearer. Biden slammed Trump for panicking over the virus which has resulted in more than 200,000 deaths: ‘’people are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker.” Portraying Trump as weak in a crisis and prioritising stock market over human lives appeared to be one of the few moments where Biden struck the right chord with rural, suburban and urban voters alike. Trump’s pettiness broke new grounds as he responded, “Don’t ever use the word smart with me” and attacked Biden for graduating from University of Delaware saying “you graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class.” While defending his coronavirus handling, Trump said he’s talking to drugmakers about developing a vaccine and said they can “go faster than that, by a lot” despite pledges to meet safety standards. Trump said developing a vaccine is “a very political thing”. This could have massive implications on coronavirus vaccine, the availability of which could be influenced by political necessity as opposed to effectiveness in Trump dominated world.
On the issue of Trump’s tax return, it was clear Biden failed to hammer the point home. He weakly criticised Trump’s income tax returns which stand at a paltry $750 per New York Times news story. The issue which could have proved far more venomous for Trump was left untouched by Biden who got sucked into an abyss of Donald Trump badgering. This was a golden opportunity to persuade working class voters in Midwestern, battle ground American states that the President has lied to IRS and millions of Americans on his own Taxes. Trump stuck to his unproven claim: he has paid millions of dollars in taxes.
Forty five minutes into the debate, Trump finally raised an issue that Republicans have deemed worthy of election triumph. Trump and his allies have alleged that the former vice president and his son has corrupt dealings in Ukraine. While this issue had failed to erupt during the ongoing pandemic, it remains potent enough to convince undecided voters filtering for a cleaner and honest candidate. Biden however seemed calm and did not lose his cool by responding “This is not about my family or his family, this is about your family — the American people,” Biden said. “He doesn’t want to talk about what you need.” Biden staved off the attack on his family despite Trump’s exaggerated claims which got lost in the powerful statement by Biden, which was made looking straight up in the camera.
Another critical yet insanely shocking moment was the question directed at Trump by Fox News’ Chris Wallace during race segment: “Will you condemn White supremacists?” and “will you call them White supremacists”. Trump seemed unfazed and said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about ANTIFA and the Left.” Donald Trump stood there, basking in the glory of the most powerful office but refused to condemn white supremacists who believe their racial supremacy is worth dominating people of colour. Whether ‘stand by’ refers to preparing to fight BLM protestors or wreaking havoc on election day remains to be seen. This moment also indicated unparalleled polarisation in American Politics between the Left and Right of the political spectrum. Trump appeased his far right voters by an unrelenting refusal to condemn white supremacists while attacking ANTIFA’s inclination for violence. Biden responded by guarding his own constituency of the Left-Centre, Democrat voters, by arguing ANTIFA is purely ideological and passively refused to denounce law and order violations. The debate ended with a stance Trump has repeatedly expressed: allege mail voter fraud to cast a doubt on the integrity of the elections despite lack of evidence per an FBI report.
The jury is out. While Biden displayed aggression and argued the case against Trump reasonably, he was unable to bring down Trump. Conversely, Trump’s stances on race, coronavirus, healthcare and voter fraud will continue to excite his strong base that can still propel him to victory, especially in the battleground states. Trump ensured this debate did very little in swinging undecided voters due to the cross firing resulting from his lack of cooperation and severe badgering.
This is precisely why mainstream polls which show Biden is leading, fail to depict the actual mood in the country especially the rural parts of America.
The writer is co-founder Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.