Roar writers Ishaan Rahman and Cristiana Sandeva analyse the candidates’ tactics and the salient topics of the second presidential debate.
On October 22, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden stood up against one another for the last time. The debate was moderated by NBC journalist Kristen Welker.
This time, both candidates’ mics were muted in turn, which largely preempted the interruptions of the last debate. Despite the more placid tones used by both, the debate still primarily featured accusatory rebuttals against, rather than actual propositions by, each politician. The level of absurdity was overall milder compared to the first debate. However, these last two hours of one-to-one confrontation before November 3 failed to clarify almost any aspect touched upon during the discussion.
Interesting claims abounded; highlights included tense exchanges about illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border on coyotes, personal attacks to Biden’s family and Trump’s finances, and creative theories on climate change and healthcare.
In more tepid terms, the positions taken in the first debate re-emerged in this second one: Trump asserted that he is proud of his record and would continue carrying it out if he is re-elected; Biden avoided harsh statements and again embodied the politically-correct – but not revolutionary – establishment.
Covid-19 & the Economy:
The debate began with the most pressing crisis of the day, the Coronavirus. As of writing, America has the ninth most Covid deaths-per-capita in the world, surpassing most other developed nations.
President Trump argued that America needs to reopen its economy. He cited increases in depression and other social pathologies, as well as economic damage that has occurred during lockdown. He also remained optimistic that a vaccine would be ready soon, though this has not been backed by health experts.
Biden wanted to come across as competent, someone who would listen to scientists, while lambasting Trump’s handling of the outbreak. He dismissed notions that he would put the country under another lockdown, saying: “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country”. He slammed Trump for not taking Covid-19 seriously and ignoring the advice of scientific advisors, highlighting comments made by the President seeking to “downplay the virus” and suggested that disinfectant could cure Covid-19.
With the death toll in America over 220,000, Biden remarked that “anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths shouldn’t remain president of the United States”. The former Vice President avoided questions about a detailed plan for a Covid-19 response during the debate, though his campaign has now released proposals.
Trump proudly iterated his termination of the ACA’s individual mandate requiring American citizens to have a form of health care, calling Obamacare “no good, no matter how well you run it”. He went on to state he wants to implement “beautiful healthcare for people with pre-existing conditions”.
It is not entirely clear what the term “beautiful” entails in Trump’s vocabulary – he has used it multiple times to define his Covid treatment, his correspondence with Kim Jong-Un, and now his plans for healthcare. Regardless of what it means, “beautiful healthcare” is definitely not the “socialised medicine” which Trump claimed Biden would doom the US with.
Throwing such a concept as “socialised medicine” into the debate was rather generalising and confusing, given that Trump did not elaborate on his definition of it. Most probably he referred to Medicare for All, an idea supported by Bernie Sanders but not backed by Joe Biden. During the debate, the latter actually came up with a new term himself: “Bidencare”.
As Trump failed to expand on his criticism of “socialised medicine”, so too did Biden fail to explain what exactly his “Bidencare” would entail. His core point, however, was that he would not abolish private insurance at all – just make sure there is a public healthcare option for those who cannot afford going private. He concluded by saying Trump was “just rambling”.
To kick the subject off, Trump focused on Biden’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, saying: “You have done nothing other than the crime bill which put tens of thousands of Black men, mostly, in jail […] and he called them super predators”. While it is not true that Biden has called Black people “super predators” – the term was used by Hillary Clinton – it is true that the number of Black people incarcerated in America rose in the years immediately following the 1994 Act.
Biden is certainly not a civil rights movement pioneer, but he has recognised that systemic racism is present in America and that no one is exempt from either performing it or experiencing it. Trump, on the other hand, has twice proclaimed himself the second-best president for Black Americans after Lincoln and dodged openly condemning White Supremacy during the first debate.
The racism discussion was less aggressive compared to the first debate, but offered no real propositions with which to solve or address the issue.
Trump began by stating that “a lot of these kids […] come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs”. If the President were known for his complex and rhetorically-rich style of expression, this sentence might have been taken more lightly. Being known for his direct speech instead, it is quite worrying to hear him say that children flee to the US riding coyotes. He proudly went on to say: “now we have over 400 miles of brand new wall – we let people in, but legally”. President Trump also boasted his ending of “catch and release” policies.
Biden’s response highlighted the criminality of separating parents from their children, asserting the impossibility of reuniting children and parents once separated. He stated that Americans “owe these kids a home” and added that, within 100 days of his presidency, he would send a document to Congress asking to give 1000 such children the right to live in the US.
Unfortunately, it is true that immigrant detention centres existed during both terms of the Obama presidency. Still, Trump’s repeated negative focus on the former presidency building “cages” could be seen as hypocritical, especially when accompanied with the brag of extended the southern border wall.
The debate here came as FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that both Russia and Iran were attempting to actively influence the 2020 Elections. Biden went on the attack, saying that Trump had been soft on Russia. He explicitly accused Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, of being a “Russian pawn”.
Recent bipartisan efforts in Congress which led to tough sanctions on Russia for its election meddling were met with indifference from the Trump Administration. US intelligence has also confirmed that Russia has been trying to denigrate Biden. As President, Biden said that he would make Russia and other foreign adversaries “pay the price” for interference.
Trump insisted that his “good relationships” with adversaries were to America’s benefit, citing an agreement he made with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It remains to be seen how successful these deals will be, though. Biden jibed: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe”.
The conversation quickly turned personal. Biden attacked Trump for avoiding taxes, repeating an alleged claim that the President continues to have a bank account in China. Trump said that he closed the account before his presidential run and made, in turn, unproven claims that Biden received payments from Russia and China.
The President also took aim at Biden’s son Hunter. Trump alleged that the former VP profited off his son’s business dealings in Russia and China. Recently hacked emails have raised suspicions to that effect, though there is no evidence tying Biden to his son’s business. Biden countered by stating that Trump continues to promote his own businesses, which he has not divested from.
This issue separated the two candidates the most, though on the surface both men seem to agree at least partially on policy. Trump is known for referring to climate change as a “hoax” in 2012. Biden, too, has been criticised by left-wing Democrats for not explicitly supporting the Green New Deal.
Striking a more moderate tone than previously, Trump lauded US accomplishments such as having the cleanest air and the lowest carbon emissions on record, especially when compared to other economic powers such as China and India. He also warned against Democratic policies such as the Green New Deal that he claimed would cost Americans their jobs.
Biden criticised Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a move which saw bipartisan opposition. He asserted that his Climate Change plan will reduce emissions while creating new jobs in clean industries, notably in electric car manufacturing. Biden cited endorsements from both climate groups and labour unions, though he also said he would phase out America’s oil sector – a historically controversial subject in American political discourse.
Overall, the debate exposed the major divisions between the two candidates but did not dig deep into their resolutions. Biden attempted to reach out to swing voters while also maintaining the Democrats’ liberal base. His commitment to fighting Covid-19, being tough on foreign adversaries, and general experience in government should have wide appeal. However, an aggressive climate change plan and a possible scandal involving his son could put off some supporters.
Trump may have hoped for another grand exhibition to gain ground in the polls. He certainly did not achieve that, as the debate was largely a stalemate. However, appearing less belligerent than three weeks ago might have helped him gain some more moderate supporters. It remains to be seen whether he can find a clear, coherent message for Americans that can help him pull off a massive comeback, perhaps even larger than in 2016.
The debate marks the beginning of the last stretch of the campaign. In the week leading up to November 3, President Trump and former Vice President Biden will campaign across major battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio. Biden’s substantial lead in the polls should give his campaign confidence and mark him as the clear favourite to win. Still, memories of Trump’s shocking win in 2016, as well as recent gains in Republican voter registration in key states, should not be ignored when entering this last phase of this election.
Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.