Washington Wednesday – Dissecting the debate

NICK EICHER: It’s Wednesday the 30th of September, 2020. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It, and we are so glad you are! Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: the first presidential debate.

EICHER: What a night!

REICHARD: It sure was. Ninety minutes of, shall we say, pointed discussions about the Supreme Court, healthcare, the economy, and COVID-19. Lots to dive into. And joining us to unpack the rhetorical jousting is Jamie Dean. She’s WORLD’s national editor and chief political correspondent.

Good morning, Jamie!


REICHARD: What were you looking for going into last night?

DEAN: President Trump went into the debate last night as the presumable underdog—at least according to a string of recent polls showing him trailing Joe Biden. Polls also have reported an overwhelming majority of voters have already made up their minds about the candidate they’ll choose. 

So, I think the question for Trump going into the evening was: Could he do something to change that dynamic? Would he have a compelling, clear message that would win over the slice of voters that aren’t yet decided? 

When it comes to former vice president Joe Biden: Biden hasn’t had to appear in many unscripted encounters this year. It’s not been a traditional campaign season, and he’s often been able to deliver prepared remarks without a lot of the off-the-cuff exchanges we usually see on the stump. He’s verbally stumbled in some of his public appearances.

So how would Biden do? Would he seem fit and ready to take on the job of the presidency? 

And finally—and perhaps most importantly—what would the candidates have to say? What might we learn about actual policy matters? 

REICHARD: Okay, before we get to the answers to those questions, set the stage for us a bit. Tell us about the parameters for the debate.

DEAN: The candidates debated in an auditorium at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated. And though Fox is known as a conservative network, Wallace is known for holding Trump’s feet to the fire, so this didn’t promise to be an easy stroll for Trump. 

REICHARD: What were the topics?

DEAN: The idea was to have six, 15-minute segments focusing on a single topic in each segment: the pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court, the candidate’s records, election integrity, and race and violence in American cities. 

I’ll admit when I saw that list I thought: Wow, those are big topics to cover in 15 minute chunks. But that’s how Wallace set the table for the evening. 

REICHARD: Okay, let’s get to the main course. What were your main take-ways?

DEAN: It’s hard to know where to begin, but I think it was really a pretty miserable evening all around. I had to go back to my notes to try to find the threads that emerged over the course of the debate because it was quite hard to follow at points.

The candidates spoke over each other so much, the moderator had to plead with them to stop. 

And President Trump certainly had the hardest time not interrupting his opponent. Chris Wallace ended up telling him: I think the country would be better served if they could hear from both of you without interruptions.

But beyond the interruptions, it just went low: Trump said there was nothing smart about Biden. Biden called Trump a fool. 

It seemed like the dynamic reflected so much of the division and rancor in the country right now, when what we need are leaders who can model how to talk with people who we disagree with in ways that are respectful and productive. I certainly don’t think that happened last night, so in many ways, I found it to be a sad moment after such a long year. 

REICHARD: What did we learn about policy?

DEAN: I think this debate was more about personality than policy in a lot of ways, and it was hit-or-miss when it came to hearing nitty gritty details about what the candidates would actually do.

A couple of things jumped out at me: On the Supreme Court, I think we got a glimpse of Biden’s strategy when it comes to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. 

He didn’t go after her personally. And he first emphasized how the court might handle the Affordable Care Act in the coming weeks. So Biden narrowed in on an issue that he probably thinks is in the forefront of many voters’ minds right now. 

He did go on to mention Roe v. Wade, and said that would be an issue too. But that wasn’t his first line of offense.

REICHARD: What about the notion of expanding the Supreme Court if Trump goes ahead with Barrett’s confirmation against Democrats’ wishes? 

DEAN: Well, that’s something that Democrats have floated: Some have said, if Trump pushes ahead, we should add justices to the court if we win the election. Biden in the past has said he’s against that idea, but he really dodged the question when Wallace directly asked him what he would do.

BIDEN: Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue.

So that’s significant. He’s not pledging to resist court-packing and he’s not ruling out eliminating the Senate filibuster—which is something else he has said in the past he didn’t think we should do. So that opens the possibility of an expanded Supreme Court and a Senate that could pass legislation with a simple majority instead of a 60-vote threshold. I thought that was a significant moment.

REICHARD: How did Trump respond?

DEAN: Overall, I think the president tried to tie Joe Biden to the far left of his party. And a lot of people have raised questions about how far left Biden would be willing to go, since he has moved left on some policies already. This is where Biden said something I thought was really interesting:

BIDEN: I am the Democratic Party.

That was an intriguing statement: I am the Democratic Party. I think what he’s trying to say there is: Don’t worry about those who are to the left of me. And Trump is trying to keep those on the left in front of voters minds because they do have an influence on Biden.

REICHARD: Okay, what did they have to say about the handling of the pandemic?

DEAN: This got into a lot of back and forth about whether Trump acted soon enough in handling the pandemic, and whether Biden would have done better. I think maybe the more pressing question of the evening for a lot of voters is what would the candidates do now?

On this point, I think the president tried to plant a flag about what he thinks Biden would do if the pandemic worsens again. Trump actually talked about this during the segment on the economy, but I think it’s safe to say there was a lot of overlap in topics all night. Here’s what he said.

TRUMP: This guy will close down the country and destroy the whole country. 

DEAN: That’s a message I think Trump wanted to land, especially for voters concerned about a return to lock-downs. 

REICHARD: There was also a discussion about race in America and some of the recent riots, right?

DEAN: Right. And here is where Chris Wallace pressed Biden on whether he had called on the mayors of cities in Oregon to allow the national guard to come in and help quell the ongoing riots in those cities. 

WALLACE: Have you ever called the democratic mayor of Portland or the democratic governor of Oregon and said, Hey, you got to stop this. Bring in the national guard, do whatever it takes, but you’d stop but days and months of violence in Portland?

BIDEN: I don’t hold public office now. I am a former vice president. I’ve made it clear. I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted. It should be prosecuted. And anyone who commits it should be prosecuted.

WALLACE: But you’ve never called for the people. Excuse me, sir. You had never called for the leaders in Portland and in Oregon to call in, bring in the national guard and knock off a hundred days of riots.

BIDEN: They can in fact take care of it if he just stays out of the way.

TRUMP: Oh really? Oh, really? (bickering)

So I think this was a weak spot for Biden. If voters are concerned about how he would handle rioting and unrest in American cities, I’m not sure they heard the answer there.

President Trump was very insistent saying we need law and order, and he tried to paint Biden as less enthusiastic about that. But Trump faced his own moment of dodging an important question when Wallace asked him about whether he would condemn white supremacy. 

WALLACE: The vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing spring this groups, but are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups? And to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence and a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha, and as we’ve seen in Portland.

TRUMP: I don’t have a, I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing (or what do you, what are you saying?) I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.

WALLACE: Well then do it, sir.

TRUMP: Do it, say it. Do you want to call them? What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name of [inaudible bickering] stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right wing problem. This is a direct, this is a left wing problem.

That’s a moment where it’s hard to understand why the president wouldn’t just say: “Of course I condemn white supremacy.” Even if he thinks leftist groups are more responsible for the riots going on in American cities—and even if that’s the point he wants to make—it would still be simple and wise to say: Yes, I condemn white supremacy. 

REICHARD: After a discussion on climate change, Wallace ended the debate by asking the candidates if they would pledge not to declare victory until after the election is independently verified. What did they have to say on that question?

DEAN: Trump expressed his concerns over mail-in voting, and I think he was trying to emphasize how overwhelmed the voting systems might become when they receive an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots over the next few weeks. That’s a valid concern, and it could mean we end up waiting a few days or even weeks to learn the outcome of the election, if it comes down to a close count in a swing state. Trump also talked about reports of mishandled ballots, and his concerns that there is fraud in the system.

Biden kept it pretty simple when he spoke about voting, and I think this might have been one of his strongest moments of the night. He spoke directly to American voters, and reminded them about the opportunity in front of them:

BIDEN: Go vote.

REICHARD: So overall, would you say there was a winner or loser in tonight’s debate?

DEAN: I don’t think there was a winner. I think the debate was way too uncivil to think of one candidate as triumphing. 

But I do think Biden showed he could hang in there with Trump and make the points he wanted to make. I think Trump showed he was digging in and reaching out to his base. I’m not sure that either candidate would have won over voters who were undecided after tonight, but they do get two more chances: We’ve got two more presidential debates coming up in October.

REICHARD: Jamie Dean is WORLD’s national editor and chief political correspondent. Thanks so much for joining us today!

DEAN: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP) President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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