Biden v Trump: The attack lines that could win or lose the debate

The two candidates have been honing their preferred weapons for months. Do they still work?

Andrew Naughtie
Wednesday 30 September 2020 01:40 BST
Biden V Trump: US election opinion polls

Five weeks to go until election day, and it’s time for Donald Trump and Joe Biden to take the stage together at last. Both have had ample time to prepare – though while Mr Biden has been holed up for in-person debate prep with a staffer playing Mr Trump in a giant suit, the president has apparently taken a lighter approach, glancing at flash cards and video clips between campaign stops.

Whether the debate will matter is a matter of debate itself. But absent a completely unforeseen event – always possible with Donald Trump onstage – it will ultimately come down to what attacks the two candidates choose, and how effectively they launch them.

Without further ado, here are each man’s three preferred lines of attack so far.

Donald Trump

Age: By far Mr Trump’s most consistent attack on Mr Biden is that he is a “low-energy” candidate on the verge of full-blown dementia. The president began calling him “Sleepy Joe” in the spring of last year, and has scarcely let up since.

His campaign is running misleading ads painting Mr Biden as incapable of holding on to thoughts or stringing together sentences. On the very same day as the debate, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, falsely declared on Fox News that Mr Biden exhibits classic symptoms of dementia, and that he may be taking adderall to improve his performance.

What takes the edge off this attack is Mr Trump’s own halting, tangled verbal style. The president spent weeks in the summer boasting about passing an elementary dementia test that asks the user to remember five words and correctly identify pictures of animals. And it was tonight’s moderator, Chris Wallace, who picked him up on the simplicity of the test during a mortifying interview.

Corruption: Along with trying to paint his rival as lethargic and senile, Mr Trump has for nearly two years fixated on Mr Biden’s supposed corruption and cronyism.

Between accusing Mr Biden of enriching himself via deals with China and complaining that he was part of a vast left-wing plot to kill the Trump administration in the cradle, the president has painted his foe as an agent of dark, corrupt forces that have conspired to send American jobs overseas while enriching the Democratic elite.

These unsubstantiated attacks, however, have been known to backfire. Remember: it was a campaign to pressure the Ukrainian president into investigating Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, that became the grounds for Mr Trump’s impeachment.

Joe Biden’s America: As the US exploded with protests, riots and police violence after the death of George Floyd, Mr Trump immediately came down on the side of “LAW & ORDER!”. He has since made much of supporting the police in the face of the anti-racist uprising, and repeatedly called for armed national forces to be unleashed on American streets.

As part of this, he and his campaign have tried to cast Joe Biden as somehow in league with rioters and criminals who want to destroy law enforcement and hurl America into violent anarchy. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America”, a campaign ad warns.

This argument suffers from a serious logical flaw: the events it shows are by definition occurring in Donald Trump’s America. And the Biden campaign has already put out a similar high-impact ad of its own to that effect.

Joe Biden

Pay your bills: Unquestionably top of the campaign news cycle this week is the seismic investigation into the president’s tax affairs by The New York Times. Over the last two decades, the paper discovered, Mr Trump has paid negligible taxes on vast sums of money – far less than most Americans pay on even very modest incomes.

A campaign ad rushed out by Mr Biden’s team over the weekend gives a glance at how he might use the story against the president on stage.

The president has derided the investigation as “fake”, but so far still refuses to prove it so by releasing his tax returns himself. He and some of his supporters have also suggested that his ability to avoid high tax bills reflects how skilfully he has mastered the system.

Pandemic politics: The coronavirus pandemic has hit the US harder than any country on Earth, claiming more than 200,000 lives – around 20 per cent of the global total, even though the US hosts only 4 per cent of the world’s population. In the process, it has also devastated the US economy, with unemployment still at record highs and millions of jobs still in the balance.

Fighting on this front, Mr Trump is likely to fall back on the well-worn lines he has used all year long: that before the pandemic, he created “the greatest economy”, that he greatly limited the virus’s ability to spread by closing down travel from China, and that the death toll is far lower than it could have been if he had done nothing.

Mr Biden has ample material to refute these lines. The abject state of the economy today, he might point out, makes it irrelevant how good it was in 2019, while the travel “ban” on China in fact allowed thousands of people in from Hong Kong and Macao, with American residents returning home routinely going untraced.

And the death toll, meanwhile, is horrifically high whatever the hypothetical alternatives, with thousands of Americans still dying every week.

Rough justice: Somewhere between the chronic coronavirus crisis and the acute taxes scandal lies the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, something the Democrats in the US Senate have almost no power to stop.

What they do have is the argument that if confirmed, Ms Barrett will be instrumental in overturning the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Mr Biden and his party hope that if enough of the electorate realises that a court featuring Ms Barrett could pose a threat to their healthcare, they will turn on both Mr Trump and vulnerable Republican senators facing re-election in five weeks’ time.

On the stage tonight, then, expect Mr Biden to tear into Mr Trump for attacking Americans’ lifeline to affordable healthcare – specifically, for claiming he will protect those with pre-existing conditions while campaigning to have the act that does so overturned.

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