No winner as Trump and Biden slug it out
Is the election result any clearer? In all the fire and fury, neither candidate triumphed in last night’s verbal fight. Both camps are claiming victory as the first public reactions come in.
Donald Trump hectored and interrupted Joe Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a “clown” and told him to “shut up.”
In a chaotic, 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrid contempt for each other unheard-of in modern American politics.
Four years ago, during the 2016 presidential election, Joe Biden was asked if he wished he could debate Donald Trump. He responded: “I wish I were in high school, I could take him behind the gym.”
But last night he finally got his chance: 90 minutes with his arch-nemesis. Biden has clearly got under Trump’s skin: the president has recently been claiming that the Democratic candidate takes performance-enhancing drugs to improve his debating skills.
Each candidate had different aims last night. Trump’s popularity has been sinking thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic damage that it has caused to the US economy.
This week he has been rocked by revelations, released by the New York Times, that he only paid $750 in income tax in the first year of his presidency. The debate provided an opportunity to turn his campaign around.
Biden has a healthy lead in the opinion polls, so his job was much easier. All he had to do was defend himself from Trump’s attacks, and avoid any gaffes of his own.
But he has not made many public appearances in the last few months, and there was a danger that he would wilt in front of renewed scrutiny.
Biden, at 77, would be the oldest man ever to win the presidency, and some have questioned whether he is still mentally fit to take on the top job. And 74-year-old Trump has also faced questions about his mental abilities.
In the end, however, any concerns about either candidate’s mental health was not an obvious issue.
The debate focused on seven topics: the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race relations and violence, the candidates’ records, climate change and the legitimacy of the election
It quickly descended into chaos, with Trump constantly shouting over Biden – he interrupted Biden 73 times – and Biden responding with frustrated insults.
Trump tried to paint Biden as a weak leader, insisting that if the Democrat wins the election, he will come under the control of the socialist wing of his party. He tried to distract Biden with constant interruptions.
Biden focused on the question of Trump’s competence, repeatedly accusing the president of lacking a plan for reforming healthcare and dealing with Covid-19. He addressed the audience directly several times, presenting himself as the voice of ordinary people.
Some attacks were simply surreal. Late in the night, Trump claimed that Biden’s climate change plan wanted to “take out the cows”.
Towards the end of the debate, Trump once again cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, insisting that some votes for him were being deliberately thrown away.
Biden pushed back firmly on these claims, but the matter has further stoked fears that Trump might refuse to accept the result.
So, is the election result any clearer?
Out for the count
Yes, say some. They point out that roughly one hundred million people will have watched last night’s debate, including undecided voters. The pandemic has restricted campaigning, so for many this would have been the first chance to hear the arguments. It also gave them a unique chance to assess the candidates and their ability to handle pressure.
No, say others. There is very little evidence that debates actually change people’s minds, especially when they are as scrappy and inconclusive as last night’s. Both candidates have been in the public eye for decades, Biden as a senator and then vice-president; Trump as a reality TV star and then, for the last four years, president: most voters have already made up their minds about them.
- What is the first thing you would do if you were elected US president? How would you persuade people to support you?
- In presidential systems people vote directly for their leader, whereas in parliamentary systems (such as in the UK) they vote for a political party – and the party leader becomes prime minister. Which system do you think is better?
- What kind of person should a president be? List seven qualities that you think someone should have to be president, and then think of some people who match your description.
- Imagine that you are the debate coach for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Write down the tips that you might give to your candidate to improve their performance and hurt their opponent’s chances.
Some People Say...
“Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.”George Jean Nathan (1882–1958), American critic
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is often suggested that whoever wins the election on 3 November will be not only the most powerful man in the USA – not only the most powerful man in the world – but the most powerful man in history. The USA is currently the world’s greatest military superpower, pouring more money into its armed forces than the next seven biggest spenders combined. The slightest bump in its economy can send shockwaves across the globe: it is said that “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”.
- What do we not know?
- There is debate over the future of American global power, which is under pressure from China. China’s economy is now bigger than the USA’s, and it has developed close economic ties with American allies in Europe and Africa. The two countries represent very different political and economic systems. Both candidates have promised a tough approach to China, and with China itself growing increasingly aggressive, tensions between the two superpowers may continue to rise.
- New York Times,
- One of the most prestigious newspapers in the USA and in the world. It has won 130 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other newspaper. It has frequently been in conflict with Trump, who routinely refers to it as “The Failing New York Times”.
- Supreme Court
- The highest court in the USA, whose verdicts cannot be appealed. It often takes on an important political role: in the presidential election in 2000, its decision to halt a vote recount in Florida ensured that George W Bush would become president, and in 2015 it was responsible for legalising same-sex marriage in every US state.
- A term used to describe a range of beliefs that stress collective control of economic processes. In the USA, it usually refers to a group of people who think that the USA ought to be more like European countries, offering universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage,and stronger workers’ rights.