The best news about the first Presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio was that it took place at all! If the opinions by respected pundits are anything to go by, Americans and the rest of the world could have done something better for ninety minutes rather than watch a virtual shouting match with incumbent President Donald Trump trying to bully his way through, first attacking Joseph Biden, and when all things failed, going after moderator Chris Wallace from his favorite network Fox News.
Fortunately for the debate process and unfortunately for Trump, neither Biden nor Wallace caved in to the needless rants of the President, who was only expected to get away from the real crux of the questions posed at him and instead wander aimlessly taking pot shots at his opponent.
On the debate agenda prepared by Wallace were the Supreme Court, coronavirus, race relations, climate change, and the integrity of elections. Instead of sticking to what was posed, Trump managed to take swipes at Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and refused to answer in a clear-cut fashion whether he would condemn White Supremacists.
Portraying himself as the champion of African Americans and telling the viewers that he has done more than any Republican President has done for the Blacks, Trump argued that it was the Democrats that had done precious little for that community. For a person who has characterized mail-in ballots as “bogus” and “fraudulent”, Trump used the debate platform to once again cast doubt on this process, arguing that he was informed of ballots that had marks of “Trump” lying around somewhere in the streets, clearly an insinuation that votes in his favor are being discarded.
If Trump had not done all that he did at the Case Western Reserve University, that would have been a let down to his core supporters. He was expected to punch hard and take pot shots at his opponent, which he did liberally, even going to the extent of saying that “there’s nothing smart” about his Democratic opponent.
The “radical left” had Biden “wrapped around their little finger”, Trump charged at the podium in words and phrases that are all too familiar by now. At a time when the harangues continued, Biden said bluntly, “Will you shut up, man?”
Not to be left out or be seen weak, Biden too took shots at Trump in the Oval office, calling him a liar, racist and a clown, words that have been thrown at the President before by people from within and outside his administration.
On several occasions, Biden sought to take his message directly to the American people by talking straight to the cameras. One such occasion was when the Democratic challenger addressed the issue of COVID-19 that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 people and affected all of the fifty states of America, some of them in a highly disproportionate manner.
“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?,” Biden asked and later on poked fun at the Republican President for his scandalous statements on the possible cures for the virus. “Maybe you could inject bleach in your arm and that would take care of it,” the former Vice President mocked.
Biden took the opportunity of the debate to release his 2019 tax returns and demanded that Trump do likewise. Personal income tax that all Presidents generally share with the American people is something that the current incumbent refuses to. The New York Times investigative reporters have revealed that the so-called billionaire real estate mogul had paid only USD 750 in 2017, the first year of his Presidency.
However, at the debate, Trump insisted that he has paid “millions” by way of taxes. As the days go by, the issue of tax filings and returns are bound to get hotter for Trump as more and more question the idea of the rich getting away paying a measly amount or nothing at all for years using loopholes, but the working class paying through their nose.
One debate by itself is not going to settle an election. However, an indication of voters’ perception can be seen in a CNN poll of debate watchers conducted by SSRS – 60 per cent were of the view that Biden did the best job and just 28 per cent felt that of Trump; about two-thirds said Biden’s answers were more truthful compared to 29 per cent for Trump; and overall nearly 70 per cent were of the view that the former Vice President’s attacks on Trump were fair. The CNN survey has also shown that aside from debate performance, Biden walks away the winner on such issues as racial inequality, health care, COVID-19, and Supreme Court nominations.
Interestingly, at a time when no one is questioning the credentials of Judge Amy Coney Barret to fill the vacancy caused by the demise of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but only the timing of the nomination, Trump defended it saying Republicans had the White House and the Senate and therefore he could proceed.
Staying on the numbers game, Trump and hard line Republicans are worried at the prospect of the Grand Old Party losing the Senate on November 3 as Democrats need only a pick up of four seats and indications are that the party might just pull it off. Republicans hope for a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court not before the November election but at least before the lame duck session of Congress ends in the first week of January 2021, just in case the numbers shift in favor of the Democrats.
It is just 33 days more for the election and three more debates—two between Presidential candidates and one Vice Presidential—that will hopefully inform the American electorate on where exactly the candidates and parties are on major issues that are of domestic and international concern. If the first debate is anything to go by, frivolous exchanges and mud slinging cannot be totally ruled out, or for that matter, dishing out irrelevant answers to questions that have not been posed by moderators. The next debate on October 15 in Miami, Florida between Trump and Biden will be in a town-hall style format where the audience will pose questions to the contenders and here, the demeanor will be watched carefully.
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)