President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden have faced off in a lively encounter in Cleveland to mark the first Presidential debate between the two candidates.
The debate itself, while fiery, did not show either candidate in a particularly promising light, with Mr Trump interrupting his Democratic challenger 73 times, according to a count by CBS News, whilst Mr Biden at times appeared slow to respond to some of the President’s jibes. Mr Biden also periodically interrupted the President, adding to the chaos of the event, and branded him ‘the worst President this country has ever had’.
Initially the two clashed on healthcare, with Mr Biden critical of the President’s intentions to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg a fortnight ago. Mr Biden argued that this would enable the President to remove the Obama era Affordable Care Act, something that Mr Trump branded as ‘socialist medicine and socialist healthcare’. The President was pressed on his plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (widely known as Obamacare) by moderator Chris Wallace. This led to further interruptions as the President refused to let Mr Wallace finish his question, and instead insisted on talking over him about his efforts to repeal Obamacare, objecting to the idea that he had not established a ‘comprehensive plan’ to do so.
When the question was finally asked, the President again went on the offensive against his opponent, using the line that he had been more effective during his 4 years in office than Mr Biden had been in 47 years as a politician. This was a line of attack used repeatedly by the President. He would later go on to say that ‘The People understand Joe. Forty-seven years, you’ve done nothing. They understand.’ Mr Trump also stated, on healthcare, that he would be able to get Insulin ‘so cheap it’s like water.’
The mood of the debate did not improve as Trump mocked Biden for his narrow margin of victory over Bernie Sanders in the Primary, calling him ‘lucky’ to get the nomination ahead of others earlier this year. He also referred to Mr Biden ‘graduating last in his class’ and refused to let Mr Biden finish his response to the question on Obamacare. Christopher Wallace again had to intervene and insist that the President allow his rival to finish, a request that was ignored by the President several times.
As they moved on to the issue of Coronavirus, Biden pointed to the recession and the number of victims and urged the President to get out of his bunker, referring to Trump-owned golf courses, and work on uniting the government to save lives. Mr Trump retorted by stating that if it had been left to Mr Biden, ‘millions would have died’ in comparison to the 200,000 who have already. He pointed to his swiftness of preventing those from China and Europe entering the US, blaming the former for the devastation caused by Covid-19.
Other issues debated included climate change and questions over the President’s income taxes which according to the New York Times show that Mr Trump paid just $750 in income tax the year he became President. However, the more striking disagreements came when discussing the protests that have erupted since the death of George Floyd earlier this year. Mr Trump was asked by Chris Wallace and Mr Biden to condemn the violence committed by Far-Right groups in response to the Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests. Mr Trump was asked to specifically condemn the Proud Boys group, to which he responded that they should ‘Stand back and stand by’, before going on to describe violence as a left-wing problem.
This was seen by many as an approval of the actions of the Proud Boys, who have been designated an ‘extremist group with ties to white nationalism’ by the FBI. The second, more personal attack, came from the President on Mr Biden’s son Hunter, who has been accused of corruption by the Trump administration due to his ties with Ukrainian businessmen. The fact this jibe followed Mr Biden’s explanation of his late son Beau’s military experience and would go on to reference Hunter Biden’s own personal drug use was seen as even more distasteful.
Reaction to the debate was overwhelmingly negative with neither side able to land the killer punch they would have hoped for. Political commentators such as CNN’s Dana Bash in the US branded the debate as a ‘s**tshow’ due to the personal attacks made by the President, the interruptions, as well as the lack of control exercised by Chris Wallace, and stated that it had now become more difficult for undecided voters to see who they should vote for. She went on to express fears that some people would possibly refuse to vote, such was the bad temper of the debate.
However, whilst Mr Biden may have at times appeared slow and muddled his words, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was impressed with how the former Vice-President coped, with some observers nervous that provocation from President Trump would see him lose his cool. This was echoed by BBC correspondent Anthony Zurcher, who argued that Biden was the marginal winner due to his ability to stand up to that level of intense scrutiny.
There is just over a month to go until election day. Thousands of people are voting or have voted already, and Mr Biden holds a comfortable poll lead over the incumbent President. The first debate will probably not alter this lead either favourably or negatively. But it remains to be seen if the next two debates will allow for a more structured and controlled debate. If the chaos of the first debate reigns supreme again, it could cost both candidates in the near future.