On the heels of a fractious presidential debate came the news that Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. Where does this leave the presidential contest?
There were ten takeaways from September 29 debate:
1.Trump’s demeanor: Donald Trump was very aggressive throughout the debate; he was constantly on the attack, interrupting 118 times. Imagine trying to retrieve a large weasel from his den and you’ll get the sense of how vicious Trump’s manner was. (He sneered at Biden throughout the 90 minutes.)
Trump’s strategy seemed to be to throw Biden off his game and cause him to have a “senior moment” that Trump could use in his TV ads — that accuse Biden of senility. This strategy didn’t work. As a consequence, Trump came off as a bully and Biden as an adult struggling to participate in a normal presidential debate.
2. Biden’s manner: While Trump glowered, Biden ran through a normal range of expressions: seriousness, bemusement, exasperation, intensity, etcetera. Biden tried to follow the debate rules while Trump didn’t.
At first, Biden seemed a bit flustered by Trump’s constant interruptions. Then he responded with his own zinger, “Will you shut up, man.” Then he peppered Trump’s interruptions with zingers: “Wrong guy, wrong time, wrong place.” “Will he just shush for a minute?” “Trump doesn’t have a plan.” “He panicked.” “Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” “He’s a fool,” “Trump is lying.” “[He’s writing] the art of the steal.” “Trump is a clown…”
3. Moderator Chris Wallace: I had high hopes for Chris Wallace — an experienced moderator — but these hopes were dashed early on. Wallace let Trump get away with constantly interrupting Biden and, in general, destroying the debate format. The contest was so fractious that some observers are calling for the next two presidential debates to be cancelled or there to be some dramatic change in format — such as the moderator having the ability to turn off the participants’s microphones, when necessary.
4. Trump blew his best chance: For the past several months, Biden has been ahead of Trump, nationally, by about 8 percentage points. The Cook Report (https://cookpolitical.com/sites/default/files/2020-09/EC%20Ratings.092920.pdf ) projects that Biden will win with, at least, 290 electoral votes — versus Trump’s 163 — with 5 states as tossups (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio). The current Real Clear Politics state poll averages show Biden ahead, or tied, in each of these states.
Donald Trump is losing the presidential election. To win, he has to expand his base. The September 29th debate was an opportunity for Trump to cut into Biden’s lead, but Trump did not take advantage of this. The after-debate CNN Poll (https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/29/politics/donald-trump-joe-biden-debate-poll/index.html ) found that 60 percent thought Biden did the best job in the debate, versus 28 percent who thought Trump did. (65 percent of respondents thought that Biden’s answers were more truthful than Trump’s versus 29 percent that thought that Trump’s responses were more truthful.) An Ipsos/538 poll (https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/538-first-presidential-debate-2020 ) had similar results.
Several important national policies were discussed during the debate:
5. Obamacare: It was clear that Donald Trump wants to end Obamacare and will ask SCOTUS to do this during the hearing scheduled for November 10. Trump said: “Obamacare is no good…it’s a disaster. It’s too expensive. Premiums are too high, that it doesn’t work. So we do want to get rid of it. Chris, we want to get rid of that and give something that’s cheaper and better.” Biden responded, “He’s been promising a healthcare plan since he got elected. He has none.”
6. Coronavirus: At this writing, the US has 7.5 million coronavirus cases and more than 212,000 deaths. Joe Biden said, “When [Donald Trump] was presented with that number [of deaths], he said, ‘It is what it is.’ Well, it is what it is because you are who you are. That’s why it is. The President has no plan… He panicked or he just looked at the stock market. One of the two. Because guess what? A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter…”
Biden and Trump have very different approaches. For example, on wearing masks. Biden said, “Masks make a big difference. [Trump’s] own head of the CDC said if we just wore masks between now, if everybody wore a mask and social distanced between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters.” Trump responded, “And they’ve also said the opposite.” Biden followed up, “[Trump’s] been totally irresponsible the way in which he has handled the social distancing and people wearing masks, basically encouraged them not to. He’s a fool on this.”
In retrospect, Trump’s debate position was that the pandemic was winding down — nothing to be afraid of. Considering this, it’s ironic that Trump has contracted COVID-19.
7. The Economy: The moderator asked, “The president says it’s a V-shape recovery, you say it’s a K-shaped recovery. What’s the difference?”
Biden responded: “The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well. Billionaires have made another $300 billion because of his profligate tax proposal, and he only focused on the market. But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working class towns in America, how well are you doing?” Biden continued, “We handed him a booming economy, he blew it.”
Trump never responded.
8. Racial Tension: The moderator asked both candidates to explain what they would do to deal with racial issues. Biden responded, “It’s about equity and equality. It’s about decency. It’s about the constitution. And we have never walked away from trying to require equity for everyone, equality for the whole of America. But we’ve never accomplished it, but we’ve never walked away from it like [Trump] has done.” Trump did not respond directly. Biden commented, “He’s the racist.”
The moderator asked Trump: “[A]re you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.” Trump responded, “What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead who do you want me to condemn.” Biden suggested, “Proud boys.” Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Trump’s response was widely condemned; he later tried to back away from it.
9. Climate Change: The moderator asked Trump, “What do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?” Trump refused to answer directly.
10. Election Integrity: the moderator asked, “How confident should we be that this will be a fair election, and what are you prepared to do over the next five plus weeks? Because it will not only be to election day, but also counting some mail-in ballots after election day. What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election.” Donald Trump responded, “It’s a rigged election.” He went on to rail against mail-in ballots.
The moderator asked, “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” Trump responded, “I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen.” Biden responded, “The fact is, I will accept it, and he will too. You know why? Because once the winner is declared after all the ballots are counted, all the votes are counted, that’ll be the end of it. That’ll be the end of it. And if it’s me, in fact, fine. If it’s not me, I’ll support the outcome.”
Debate bottom line: Trump had an opportunity to gain support, but did not take advantage of this. At the end, he seemed to be saying that he expected to lose and would vigorously contest the fairness of the election.
What happens next: Given Trump’s reckless personal behavior, it’s not surprising that he contracted COVID-19. Now he will go into quarantine. At the least, this suggests that he will cancel campaign events and probably his participation in the October 15th second debate. Hopefully, Trump’s illness will encourage his supporters to take the pandemic seriously: to wear masks and practice social distancing.
A tumultuous presidential contest just got weirder. Hold on!