Despite incessant interruptions from Donald Trump that infuriated even the moderator, both Trump and Democrat candidate Joe Biden stuck fast to their areas of strength in the first presidential debate, focusing on domestic issues.
Both candidates seemed to work hard to reinforce their stereotypes: Trump routinely tried to shout over both Biden and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, and uttered some astonishing lies, while Biden at times appeared doddery, stumbled over his words and relied on his stock phrase “Here’s the deal”. And both tried to turn debate questions to their areas of perceived strength.
While the opening question was ostensibly on the Supreme Court and Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Biden immediately turned the issue on to the Democrats’ strength, healthcare, in effect warning the election would be a referendum on Obamacare and the threat of the Supreme Court to its continuation.
Challenged to explain what his overall plan for healthcare was, Trump visibly struggled, preferring to attack Obamacare.
Biden, despite being routinely interrupted by Trump, would have been happy that the opening part of the debate was devoted to an area where Democrats hold a strong edge on their opponents in the minds of US voters.
From there it was a short jump to the pandemic, where Trump’s line of defence was that things would have been far worse under Biden if he’d been responsible for responding to “the China plague”.
Biden had two pre-prepared lines to deploy against Trump, using Trump’s description of 200,000 deaths as “It is what it is” to reply with “It is what it is because you are who you are”, and exploiting Bob Woodward’s revelation that Trump didn’t want to panic Americans about the virus to say to viewers: “You don’t panic — he panics.”
When the debate switched to the economy, Biden employed the usual Democrat tactic of focusing on the economy for working people and small-town America, often directly speaking to the camera, while Trump warned that the Democrats would shut the economy down.
The issue of Trump’s tax returns inevitably came up, with the president insisting he had paid “millions” in taxes in 2016 and 2017 and not US$750.
“Show us your tax return,” sniped Biden. “I will when it’s finished,” Trump replied.
Trump also sought repeatedly to attack Biden’s son Hunter over allegations — rejected even by some Republicans — of foreign corruption.
The discussion of racism and Black Lives Matter also went in predictable directions, with Biden accusing Trump of racism and seeking to divide Americans, while Trump charged Biden with being captive to the “radical left” and emphasising his law and order credentials and the role of Democrat mayors and governors in tolerating civil disorder, before returning to attack Hunter Biden.
Biden was repeatedly thrown off stride by Trump’s incessant interjections and abuse, which so enraged Wallace that one stage he stopped the debate and asked if Trump was prepared to adhere to the rules his own side had agreed to.
“He doesn’t keep his agreements,” Biden interjected.
But Biden did little to undermine the impression he is vague, inarticulate and slightly confused, which he tried to dispel by trying to reel off statistics to back himself up.
The debate on climate change shed little light, with Trump insisting America was doing well with achieving “clean air and water” and insisting that forest fires were mainly caused by poor forest management, in contrast to “forest cities” in Europe, a bizarre claim Trump has made before, before trying to link Biden to the Green New Deal.
The debate ended, appropriately, with a long Trump screed about mail ballot fraud, and repeated declarations the election wouldn’t be decided “for months”.
He refused Wallace’s invitation to tell supporters to remain calm, predicting there could be 80 million fraudulent ballots, and was still yelling about it when Wallace brought the debate to an end.
As is so often the case with election debates, the result merely confirmed pre-existing images of the candidates.
In this case, that includes a president who is laying the groundwork for refusing to leave office if he loses.
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