The first of three scheduled US presidential debates between US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took place yesterday evening at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.
The setting intended to convey a general focus on health care: broadly, the future of the Affordable Care Act passed under US President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president and Trump was a reality TV star, and the national response to the coronavirus emergency; narrowly, specific provisions of the law such as the individual mandate and portability, and policy and execution during the Covid crisis. Other segments were on race relations, law and order, the economy, and election integrity.
Moderator Wallace’s way into the health care issue was Trump’s recent SCOTUS nomination, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who has made statements about her opinion of the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Obama-era reform law, which Republicans led by Trump have promised to repeal and replace, but have so far offered no semblance of an alternative.
The exchanges did not bring much clarity to the contours or the specifics of the national discussion, but they did send this viewer casting about for disinfectant.
After an opening segment that quickly degenerated into undiscipline, Wallace moved on. “The second subject,” said Wallace in an effort to restore a modicum of order to the proceedings, “is Covid-19 — which is an awfully serious subject — so, let’s try to be serious about it.”
“The President has no plan,” to combat the virus and return the country to health, Biden said. The former vice president was responding to a question from Wallace regarding the reasons for which the American people should trust Biden himself with the leadership of the nation in crisis. “[Trump] hasn’t laid out anything,” Biden added.
Trump, meanwhile, blamed China: “It’s China’s fault,” Trump said. “It never should have happened,” Trump said. “We’ve done a great job,” but the “fake news” media have distorted public perception of his administration’s response to the pandemic. The candidates interrupted each other, not only trading barbs, but talking over one another in raised voices.
CNN’s Jake Tapper called it, “A hot mess inside a train wreck inside a dumpster fire.”
There was talk of the president’s taxes, and about who’s responsible for the tax code that lets business men and corporations avoid payment. Trump attacked Joe Biden’s son over allegations of ethics violations in connection with Ukrainian energy firm for which the younger Biden worked when his father was vice president, and Biden noted the Trump family’s recently-discovered passion for public service. It became a shouting match.
“Gentlemen, stop!” Wallace fairly shouted at the end of that unproductive debate segment. “I hate to raise my voice,” the Fox News moderator continued, “but, why should I be any different than the two of you?” Turning into the segment that followed the tax discussion and exchange of family insults, Wallace said: “I think the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions.”
That next segment was on race and race relations in the United States — a segment that shaded perceptibly into the one that followed, on law and order. Questioned about his decision to end federal racial sensitivity training, Trump said, “I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools all over the place,” and because the people conduction courses were “teaching people to hate our country.”
“The fact is,” Biden replied, “there is racial insensitivity — people have to be made aware of what other people feel like: what insults them, what is demeaning to them. It’s important that people know. They don’t want — many people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, but it makes a big difference. It makes a gigantic difference in the way a child is able to grow up and have a sense of self-esteem.”
Wallace asked Trump to condemn White supremacists. Trump wanted to know which ones? “Give me a name,” said the President of the United States. Wallace offered the alt-right Proud Boys group known for engaging in violence and intimidation. “Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, “but I’ll tell you what, somebody has got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
By the end of the affair, Trump was repeating the aspersions he has cast on the integrity of the electoral process and demurring on whether he would leave office if he loses.