More heat than light was generated as President Donald Trump and his Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden clashed in a chaotic presidential debate focused on domestic issues that overwhelmed the moderator and descended into invectives.
In the first debate on Tuesday night, Trump played up his pre-Covid-19 economic record and the threat to law and order from the radical left, who he said were the force behind Biden.
Biden hammered on the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 lives in the US, which he said was the result of Trump’s mismanagement and the racial divisions that, according to him, have gotten worse under the president.
Trump went into the debate held 35 days before this election 6.1 per cent behind in the aggregation of polls by RealClearPolitics with the hopes of drawing fence-sitting voters, while for Biden it was to retain and build his lead.
The debate started without the traditional handshake – although it was only because of the Covid-19 pandemic nevertheless appeared to presage the all out bout.
Trump with his usual bluster threw off the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, talking over him and loudly interrupting Biden, taunting him on his 47-year political career and telling him at one point, “Don’t ever use the word smart with me, Joe.”
Biden paid him back for his aggression calling him Russian President “Putin’s puppy”, a “liar” a “clown” and a “racist” and telling him, “Will you shut up man?”
A harried Wallace tried – sometimes vainly – to keep order, giving the impression of a weak teacher in an unruly classroom, at one point almost pleading with an obstreperous Trump, “If I may ask my question, sir…”
The result of the election with a large number of postal ballots this time is likely to be delayed because of the time it will take to sort and count them, unlike in recent elections which were run with machines.
Biden agreed with the moderator that he would tell his followers to stay calm and would accept the result when it is announced.
But Trump would not give a categorical assurance. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen” because “they will cheat,” he said, avoiding direct response.
He also said, “If I see tens of thousands of ballot being manipulated, I’m not going to accept it.a
The president warned of election fraud citing the military ballots marked for him that were found in trash in Pennsylvania, the thousands of postal ballots issued in duplicate or sent to wrong addresses.
Biden denied that there was a problem with the postal ballots, expected to increase in huge numbers because some states were issuing them to all voters.
Trump repeatedly tried to paint Biden in the bright red colours of “the radical left” wing of the party. “They’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that,” Trump said.
At least twice, Trump made Biden disown the left. Pressed on a joint platform he had made with Senator Bernie Sanders, the leftist who had challenged him, Biden said “My party is me. I am the Democratic Party right now. The platform of the Democratic Party is what I approved of.”
At another point, he disowned the “New Green Deal” drafted by the party’s left that calls for 100 per cent zero carbon emission and a host of other demands like government dole to people who just do not want to work.
When Wallace pressed him on it, he repeated, “No, I don’t support the Green New Deal.”
Trump taunted him, “That means you just lost the radical left. It’s gone.”
While some Republicans have said they would vote for Biden, Trump’s base is mostly intact, while Biden has to hold on to the ideologically disparate Democratic Party and also appeal to the uncommitted.
Biden did not outrightly condemn the violence from the protests against police encounter killings of African Americans and racism, only saying that violence should be prosecuted and asserting that the long-running riotous situation in Oregon state that Trump often spoke of can be taken care of if Trump “just stays out of the way”.
Trump hit at a Democratic Party weak point – law and order that has deteriorated seriously because of the protests and the party holding the areas where the situation is the worst with rising crime rates. Biden turned around said that it was taking place under Trump’s watch.
Trump said that not one organisation of law enforcement personnel has endorsed Biden. (In the US, unions of government employees are permitted to support candidates in elections.)
When the New York Times report of Trump paying only $750 in income tax in 2017 came up, he said that he had paid tens of millions in taxes and the amounts were dictated by the tax laws Biden had played a role in enacting.
On race, an issue roiling the country, Trump was low key deflecting the questions to the role of the left. Asked by Wallace to condemn White supremacists, Trump said, “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right.”
“Who would you like me to condemn? Who? Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he said referring to a violent White Group. But he added, “Somebody has got to do something about ANTIFA” which is a leftist anarchist group.
Biden also criticised Trump for ending a controversial training programme run mostly by outside contractors on sensitising White people to racism by drawing attention to their privilege and called him a racist.
Biden mostly stuck to his script, while Trump was more freewheeling, bringing up Biden’s son Hunter’s foreign business deals – to which Biden repeatedly said they were not true, without launching a counterattack on Trump’s family.
Biden stood by his son admitting that he had had a drug problem — like in many families — but had recovered.
Trump said that Hunter Biden had received billions from China to invest and $3.5 million from the wife of Moscow’s mayor.
He said that under Biden jobs had been flowing out to China, which on trade “China ate your lunch, Joe.”
Foreign affairs came up only in the passing when Trump said that India — like China and Russia — does not give a “straight count” of the number of people killed by Covid-19 when Biden hit him on the high US toll.
Trump also crticised India and China as being environmental polluters, justifying pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Biden made a threat to countries that will not follow his environmental agenda warning Brazil “you’re gonna have significant economic consequences” if it continues tearing down forests.