Trump-Biden town halls: America gets duelling versions of future presidents

Evening may have been good for television ratings but less so for America’s democracy, writes Andrew Buncombe

Friday 16 October 2020 12:39
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Candidates made pitches to nation 1,000 miles apart
Candidates made pitches to nation 1,000 miles apart

It was the night Americans were supposed to sit down together and watch the second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Instead, what happened, was that the two men each made their case for the nation to vote for them, albeit not in the setting of a debate, but in duelling, competing “television specials” that were broadcast at the same time, and competed for viewers.

On the three channels operated by NBC News, Trump, 74, made a typically bombastic appearance.

He spoke over the moderator, defended his retweeting of conspiracy theories suggesting the 2011 raid that killed Osama Biden Laden was staged, questioned the efficacy of masks against the spread of Covid-19, even as the death toll crept passed 217,000, and dodged a question of when his administration would unveil a health plan.

He was also evasive when questioned by journalist and presenter Savanah Guthrie as to whether he had taken a coronavirus test before the debate with Biden in Cleveland last month. “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” he said.

Neither Trump nor Guthrie wore masks.

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Meanwhile, on ABC News, Biden, 77, spoke to broadcaster George Stephanopoulos, a former member of the Bill Clinton White House, in a soft-paced conversation, during which he took questions from members of the public. Both Biden and Stephanopoulos were wearing masks.

Biden was polite, and thoughtful and did his best to lay out policies to tackle Covid and boost the economy, and tried not to get tied down on whether or not he genuinely supported fracking. All the while, in contrast to Trump’s noise and fury, the vice president was calm, sometimes to the point of somnolence.

All in all then, pretty much what anyone may have expected from both both men.

The two events on Thursday were held on the night Biden and Trump were due to have debated for the second time, after their first, ugly encounter in Ohio, when Trump repeatedly talked over Biden and the Fox News moderator, and Biden struggled to be heard.

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As it was, the Trump campaign pulled out of the second encounter after the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates said it would be a virtual debate, after the president tested positive for the coronavirus, along with the first lady, at or around the same time he was in Ohio with Biden.

While he has sought to play down what befell him, Trump was helicoptered to Walter Reed military hospital for a regimen of experimental treatments.

Therefore, the two men made their pitches to the nation more than 1,000 miles apart, Trump in the swing state of Florida, and Biden in the battleground of Pennsylvania.

Trump once again questioned the effectiveness of using masks, despite his own administration’s health experts insistence they can play a vital role.

“I was good with it, but I've heard many different stories on masks,” Trump told Guthrie, before launching into a story about how someone serving him food had touched his mask with his hands, forcing the president not to eat the meal.

“On the masks, you know, you have two stories: you have a story where they want, a story where they don't want.”

Biden, typically, went out of his way not to stir controversy. Yet, he did raise eyebrows when he sought to play down his role in the 1994 Crime Bill, which has been shown to have disproportionately impact communities of colour.

“The mistakes came in terms of what the states did locally,” he claimed.

The question neither candidate was asked, and one which the country surely deserved an answer to, was why they were each proceeding with their separate events rather than hammering out terms for a debate. 

It might be good for television ratings, but not for anyone trying to watch the events in real time, scrolling back and forth between channels.

Trump’s event lasted an hour, Biden’s 90 minutes. 

He said he was prepared to debate with Trump wherever and whenever. The third debate is scheduled for Thursday 22 October in Nashville, Tennessee.

Stephanopoulos then thanked him. “You’ve done a real service to our democracy tonight,” he said.

In truth, this strange evening felt like anything but that.

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