Update 477: Chaos Plays to Trump’s Hand
But Post-Debate I, It’s Still a Losing Hand
Down in the polls for months, Donald Trump needed to move the needle with a spectacular performance. And it was…spectacularly devoid of policy. The spectacle will be repeated next time if only to distract the 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions lest they figure out his plan for them.
The dearth of policy substance in last night’s debate actually presents opportunities for Democrats to fill the void. We outline some of these, like health care, economic policy and political reform. And, as usual, offer modest suggestions.
Last night, Vice President Biden and President Trump faced off in the first of three scheduled presidential debates. The debate, hosted in Cleveland, Ohio and moderated by Fox News’s Chris Wallace, quickly devolved into chaotic cross-talk as Trump frequently interrupted Biden and Wallace struggled to maintain control.
Despite the disorder and a shaky start, Biden managed to emerge victorious. A CBS/YouGov poll indicated 48 percent of watchers think Biden won the debate, compared to 41 percent who believe Trump did. The Vice President’s campaign raised $3.8 million between 10-11 PM ET last night, the best 1-hour fundraising period the campaign has had this cycle.
Below, we focus on the candidates’ statements on economic policy and democracy, elucidate what went wrong, and offer suggestions for how to improve the debates in the future.
Kitchen Table Issues
Between the incessant interruptions and intermittent sniping, the candidates were able to touch on the two kitchen table issues on most Americans’ minds — healthcare and the economy. While Biden came prepared to talk about policy, Trump took to the debate stage armed only with personal insults and excuses.
- Healthcare: Last night’s debate opened with a question on the current vacancy of the Supreme Court, and Biden immediately pivoted to the issue of healthcare. Biden homed in on the precarity of Roe v. Wade and the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the Supreme Court.
Biden pointed out that Trump’s challenge to the ACA would strip 20 million people of health insurance and endanger 100 million more with pre-existing conditions. Trump denied that the case would have a major impact, going so far as to dispute that many Americans had preexisting conditions. But a 2017 HHS report estimates as many as 133 million people could lose coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Trump signed an executive order this month, promising coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. However, experts have shown that the order guarantees few protections compared to the ACA. Biden dismissed the order as mere “wishful thinking.”
Since assuming office, Trump has aimed to eliminate the ACA, despite its overwhelming popularity. But Republicans have yet to offer any healthcare plan of their own to replace it. Though Trump accused Biden of backing “socialist medicine,” Biden retorted that his healthcare plan only adds a public option to the ACA for those that already qualify for Medicaid.
- Tax Policy: Wallace wasted little time before bringing up the New York Times report revealing that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes for 2016 and 2017. In response, Trump claimed that he paid “millions of dollars” in taxes but again refused to release his returns. Hours before the debate, Biden released his 2019 tax return, showing he paid nearly $300,000 in total federal taxes.
This dispute morphed into a broader discussion on tax policy, with Biden emphasizing that Trump had taken advantage of existing tax laws and vowing to repeal the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Biden also mentioned raising the corporate tax rate. His tax proposal will raise the corporate income tax to 28 percent and create a corporate minimum tax on book income.
- Economic Relief & Recovery: Given the opportunity, Trump touted the performance of the pre-pandemic economy and blamed the current crisis entirely on China. The president went on to falsely claim that Biden oversaw the slowest economic recovery in American history.
Dismissing Trump’s claims outright, Biden noted that Obama inherited a recession but left a booming economy that crumbled under Trump’s watch. Biden pointed to his role in saving the auto industry after 2008, highlighting his proven ability to facilitate economic recovery. Biden also touted his plans to restore the economy and provide immediate relief to the American people, mentioning an economic forecast predicting his plans would create 7 million more jobs than Trump’s.
In the last section of the night, the debate turned to democracy and the upcoming election. Biden rebuffed claims of voter fraud, stating that Trump’s own Homeland Security Secretary and FBI Director indicated there was no risk of voter fraud from mail-in ballots. Trump predictably repeated his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in a confusing rant about finding ballots in creeks and individuals receiving two ballots. This month, Trump encouraged North Carolinian supporters to violate the law by voting twice.
In the last moments of the debate, Biden encouraged the public to vote and stated he would accept the results of the election once independently verified. Trump refused to say that he would accept the election outcome, proclaimed that the election is already rigged, and urged his supporters to “watch very carefully.” In the first week of early voting in Virginia, Trump supporters in Fairfax reportedly harassed and intimidated voters while waving Trump banners in putative or prima facie violation of federal election law.
What Went Wrong and How to Fix It
The debate appalled many with the President’s hectoring of Biden at every turn and race-baiting at an alarming level, raising questions about how the rest of the debates will go. Today, the Commission on Presidential Debates stated it will make changes to the structure of the subsequent debates to prevent a recurrence of the disarray seen last night. The second debate, which will have a town-hall style featuring questions from undecided voters, may prompt Trump to adopt a less aggressive strategy. Should the interruptions and cross-talk continue, however, moderators may consider taking matters into their own hands and mute the microphone of the obstructing candidate.