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2020 debate: Four things we learnt from the first Trump-Biden showdown

Pelosi was right, Biden finds a winning message on law and order, and other crucial lessons from Tuesday’s debate

Griffin Connolly
Wednesday 30 September 2020 15:11
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Political commentators and TV pundits have almost universally panned the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden as a complete disaster.

CNN’s Dana Bash called it a “s***show” live on air.

“That was the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen,” an ABC News panellist said.

But even from the incoherence, the first Biden-Trump debate taught us several things about the 2020 presidential race and how each candidate views his chances with five weeks to go before election day.

Here are five things we learnt:

1. Pelosi was right

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been publicly urging Mr Biden for weeks not to debate the president, saying it was not worth his time to “legitimise” Mr Trump’s words by appearing with him onstage.

“Why bother? He doesn’t tell the truth,” Ms Pelosi said on Friday.

The speaker has a unique understanding of the value – or lack thereof – of engaging with Mr Trump directly.

She herself has given up on it: she hasn’t spoken with the president in more than 11 months.

Everything the California Democrat said about the debate leading up to it looks prescient now.

Mr Trump will “belittle what the debates are supposed to be about”, Ms Pelosi said as far back as 27 August.

“They’re not supposed to be about skulduggery on the part of somebody who has no respect for the office he holds, much less the democratic process,” she said.

Mr Biden’s campaign did not listen, and Tuesday’s debate – immediately decried as the most disgraceful in US history – was the result.

2. 2016 Trump was nothing compared to 2020 Trump

If you play back the tapes from Mr Trump’s 2016 debates with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the difference from Tuesday’s debate with Mr Biden is substantial.

While Mr Trump did interrupt Ms Clinton throughout the three debates, she was at least allowed to deliver mostly full, cogent responses to the moderators’ questions.

That was not the case on Tuesday.

Mr Trump repeatedly interrupted Mr Biden, to the point the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, apologised for having to raise his voice to quieten the two men.

“Mr President, let him answer,” Mr Wallace exclaimed at one point.

“Mr President, please stop,” he said another time.

The president’s inability to let the moderator have the final word eventually derailed the debate so much that Mr Trump and Mr Wallace feuded over the degree to which Mr Trump had interrupted Mr Biden throughout the evening.

“Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” the Fox News host said, attempting to steer away from the squabble.

3. Biden found a winning message on law and order

Amid the chaos on Tuesday, Mr Biden managed to deliver a succinct, seemingly off-the-cuff expression that sums up his message on law enforcement in the US, a key issue this year in the wake of a summer of protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

“Are you in favour of law and order?” Mr Trump asked his opponent at one point during a nearly incomprehensible back-and-forth.

“Law and order with justice, where people get treated fairly,” Mr Biden responded, underscoring his belief that the vast majority of men and women who serve in local police departments are good people who need “help” to deal with the problems in their communities.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump railed against Mr Biden for not directly condemning antifa, the loose collection of left-wing, anti-fascist demonstrators who have engaged in riotous behaviour in US cities this summer at racial justice protests.

(Mr Biden has directly condemned antifa, as well as violence “across the board”.)

“That’s not true,” Mr Biden muttered continuously throughout the night, in response to Mr Trump’s line of attack on antifa and several other topics.

4. Biden knows he is the frontrunner

It was clear from the former vice president’s message on Tuesday that he believes he has the support to win the presidency – it’s just a matter of getting Americans to cast actual votes.

“You have it in your control to determine what the country is going to look like these next four years,” he said, looking directly at the camera in response to a question from Mr Wallace about how Americans can believe in the legitimacy of the election results.

“He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” Mr Biden said, referring to Mr Trump. “He’s just afraid of counting the votes.”

The Democratic nominee directly acknowledged he would concede the election to Mr Trump if the president wins the vote, something Mr Trump has not done, instead indicating he will challenge the results of the election if he loses, based on the unfounded belief that mail-in ballots will be rife with fraud.

“We might not know for months, because these ballots are going to be all over,” Mr Trump said, claiming the election system was “rigged” against him.

Study after study has shown virtually no instances of widespread voter fraud in any recent US presidential elections.

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