President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, faced off head to head in the first of three presidential debates Tuesday night, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio. The 90-minute debate was moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. The two candidates often spoke over each other, with Chris Wallace at times acting like a school disciplinarian trying to break up a street brawl.
President Trump displayed strength and energy in going after Biden on a host of issues. “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years,” Trump declared. “47 years, you have done nothing,” Trump added.
The good news for Biden is that he held his own and survived to fight another day. Biden showed exasperation at being frequently interrupted. “You shut up, man,” Biden told Trump after one such interruption. On other occasions, Biden lobbed insults at Trump, calling him a clown, “Putin’s puppy,” a liar, a racist and the “worst president” in American history. “Under this president, we’ve become weaker, sicker, far more divided and more violent,” Biden said. At times, Biden simply ignored Trump’s jabs and looked directly into the camera to address the millions of people watching from home.
Biden came close to losing his cool when Trump hectored Biden repeatedly over his son Hunter’s shady business dealings in China, Russia and Ukraine while his father was serving in the Obama administration as vice president. The mainstream media in the tank for Joe Biden’s candidacy have done their level best to bury the facts about Hunter Biden’s alleged corruption, but Trump was not about to let the issue go unmentioned.
Biden denied that Hunter had done anything wrong, claiming that the allegations were untrue and had been “totally discredited.” Biden tried at one point to pivot away from his troubled son Hunter to invoke the memory of his late son Beau Biden, who had served in the military. He used Beau as a segue way to criticizing Trump for reportedly calling members of the American military who lost their lives “losers” and “suckers” – a charge that Trump denied. Biden then tried to change the subject by declaring that the campaign is not about either candidate’s family. “It’s about your family,” Biden said, addressing the television audience. “The American people. He doesn’t want to talk about what you need.”
Perhaps the most significant challenge for Joe Biden coming out of the debate was whether he will be able to hold on to major support from the progressive left base of his party after his attempt to distance himself from key planks of the progressive agenda. Biden said that he did not support the Green New Deal. Biden’s running mate Senator Kamala Harris, who referred to a “Harris administration” during a virtual roundtable, is an unequivocal supporter of the Green New Deal. At one point, Biden said that he favored “law and order” and praised most police as good people. He refused to say whether he supported progressive initiatives to eliminate the Senate filibuster and to pack the Supreme Court when asked by Chris Wallace. “I’m not going to answer the question,” Biden said.
When Trump suggested that the Democratic Party base would press Biden to abolish private health insurance and adopt socialized medicine, Biden denied the charge and retorted that “My party is me. Right now, I’m the Democratic Party.” It did not sound very convincing, but Biden’s puppet masters will not be happy. “Your party wants to go socialist,” Trump said. “They’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that.”
Biden straddled the issue of quelling violent protests. He would not answer Chris Wallace’s question as to whether he had ever called the Democratic governor of Oregon or the mayor of Portland to suggest they bring in the National Guard or otherwise do whatever was necessary to stop the street violence. “I don’t hold public office,” Biden replied. “I am a former vice president.” But he expressed his opposition to violence in general terms.
Chris Wallace tried to operate largely within the framework of themes that he had announced prior to the debate – the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election. However, as happens with new developments right before a debate, Wallace veered off script. Wallace asked Trump about a lengthy New York Times report, published online two days before the debate, that the president had allegedly paid little or no federal income taxes for years due to huge business loss tax write-offs. The article highlighted its claim that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidential election in 2016 and $750 again during his first year in the White House. Trump said the report was false and that he had paid millions of dollars in income taxes.
Trump said that he had taken advantage of provisions in the tax code, some of which were written while Biden was a senator and vice president. All business leaders do the same “unless they are stupid,” he said. Ironically, it was the Obama-Biden administration that changed the tax rules to allow businesses to claim losses from two years to four years into the future.
Joe Biden tried to land some punches on this tax issue, using it to draw an unfavorable comparison between the $750 figure Trump allegedly paid in 2016 and 2017 to the far higher amounts in federal income taxes that everyday working Americans such as teachers pay. “Show us your tax returns,” Biden demanded.
Earlier in the day, Biden released his 2019 tax returns showing that he and his wife paid $299,346 in taxes and challenged Trump to do the same. But Biden did not pursue the point, missing an opportunity to define Trump as out of touch with ordinary Americans. In any case, the fact is that, since Trump became president, he has taken only $1 each year from his $400,000 annual salary and contributed the rest to various government agencies. According to Politifact, “Trump donated the last two quarters of his 2019 salary and his first quarter of his 2020 salary to the Department of Health and Human Services. The department is working on two issues that Trump designated for the funds: the opioid crisis and COVID-19.”
President Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was a prominent topic of the debate. Democrats are trying to make health care a top issue in the campaign, as they had successfully done in 2018 to capture the House of Representatives.
Joe Biden accused President Trump of mismanaging the pandemic and raising doubts about the advice of his own scientists, costing more than 200,000 American lives. Biden said that Trump “has no plan” in how to deal with the pandemic – a demonstrable falsehood.
Trump recited the steps his administration has taken to combat the coronavirus, starting with the restrictions he imposed on January 31st on travel from China where the virus originated. Biden initially opposed those restrictions, Trump said. If Biden had been president, Trump claimed, the country would have suffered at least two million deaths from the coronavirus.
“We got the gowns. We got the masks. We made the ventilators – you wouldn’t have made the ventilators – and now we’re weeks away from a vaccine,” Trump said. “You could have never done that job,” Trump added. Trump also said that Biden now wanted to shut down the entire country again, which would wreck the economy that was rebounding after businesses had reopened and Americans were returning to work.
Another flashpoint in the presidential debate was the impending Senate confirmation hearings and vote on President Trump’s nominee to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court – federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett. President Trump praised Judge Barrett’s record and defended his right to select her before the end of his term. “We won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House, and we have a phenomenal nominee,” Trump said. “I’m not elected for three years, I’m elected for four years,” Trump added.
Joe Biden objected to moving forward so quickly on the eve of the election rather than giving the election winner the opportunity to select Justice Ginsburg’s replacement. Biden said he was especially concerned that, with Barrett sitting on the Supreme Court as another conservative justice before a constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act is heard on November 10th, the law known more popularly as Obamacare will be doomed. Biden predicted that Judge Barrett would vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, including its protections for women’s health and people with pre-existing condition, if confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Biden and his fellow Democrats are trying to scare voters into believing that Judge Barrett will help kill Obamacare and thereby take away Americans’ protections for pre-existing conditions. However, just because Barrett criticized in a law review article the reasoning of the Supreme Court opinion upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare eight years ago does not mean that she would take a sledgehammer to the law today. The Obamacare case now before the Supreme Court deals with whether the removal of the individual mandate and associated penalty clauses should invalidate the entire law. A conservative jurist could well decide that severing that one portion of the law should not affect the validity of the balance of the law.
Moreover, many individuals who did not receive subsidies under Obamacare were priced out of the market by high Obamacare exchange premiums and thus were not able to afford the Obamacare protections for pre-existing conditions. Trump said that he has a much better health care plan that would protect individuals with pre-existing conditions – a protection that the president has already incorporated into an executive order.
About race relations, Joe Biden portrayed himself as the good guy and President Trump as the villain. Trump retorted that Biden was responsible for the 1994 crime law that resulted in the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which Trump managed to remedy with criminal reform legislation. When asked by Chris Wallace whether he was willing to condemn white nationalists, Trump replied that “I’m willing to do that” while noting that “almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not from the right.” Biden refused to condemn Antifa, claiming falsely that the radical left violent group was just an idea.
Finally, regarding the outcome of the election, President Trump raised his usual objections to the prospect of millions of unsolicited mail-in ballots floating around and indicated that the Supreme Court might ultimately have to get involved. Joe Biden defended mass mail-in voting and said that he was willing to abide by the results. That’s not a surprising answer when you know that the system may be rigged in your favor.
The first presidential debate was entertaining but probably did not change many voters’ minds. Two more presidential and one vice presidential debate to go.