What the Subtext of the Presidential Debates Tells Us About US Politics
The first presidential debate of 2020 was nearly-universally regarded as awful. It was a toddler slap-fight played by grown men with an absent referee. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter.
What matters is what happened between the lines. Biden and Trump signaled their priorities with their focus. They also showed what positions are unpopular by using them as accusations.
Here’s a blow by blow of the topics and the hidden meanings of the candidates’ answers:
Trump praised Amy Coney Barrett, his candidate for the Supreme Court. He defended his plan to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice before the election by claiming the Democrats would have done the same if they could.
Biden spent most of his time on the threat to Obamacare posed by ACB and added an aside about women’s rights — an implicit reference to abortion, and the possibility that the new Justice could vote to overturn pro-choice rulings.
The two went on to bicker more over Obamacare, over who’d have handled COVID-19 better, and a bit more about abortion rights. Ultimately, they spent very little time on whether it was fair to seat a Justice so close to the election when the GOP refused to do so four years ago. They didn’t treat it as an issue that matters to voters.
Uncharacteristically, both candidates stayed on topic. Biden cited statistics to make the case that the US is handling COVID poorly and blamed Trump’s lack of planning. Trump claimed that his handling was widely praised, and criticized Biden’s record on swine flu.
When asked about the economy, Trump talked about the damage done by the COVID lockdown. He claimed that Biden would make the lockdown worse. He was playing to the anxieties of the non-essential workers who’ve suffered from the restrictions.
Biden started with the normal attack from the left: that the economy favors the rich over the poor and that Trump has made it worse. He quickly pivoted to arguing that containing COVID is necessary to save lives.
For both candidates, addressing COVID was a higher priority than normal economic issues. The moderator had to push them to debate their economic plans. Trump said Biden wanted to raise taxes, Biden defended his plan as good for the economy. It was a typical left-versus-right debate.
They each took a moment to attack each other over scandals: Trump’s tax avoidance, and Biden’s son’s deals in Ukraine. They treated these scandals as low-priority. In particular, Trump’s taxes had been seen as a bombshell before the debate but Biden didn’t give them much time.
The two were then asked questions about race which actually just meant Black-White relations. Biden accused Trump of defending white supremacists and invoked the Klan before pivoting to COVID again.
Trump brought up Biden’s past racially-charged “super predator” remarks then went hard on law-and-order. He touted his support among law enforcement officers and criticized the riots that followed the BLM protests. He hammered this point; the Trump campaign clearly believes that the American people hate this rioting and are ready to blame the Democrats.
Trump and Biden then argued over whether racial sensitivity training is useful or leftist propaganda. Their hearts weren’t in it, though, and they returned to the riots.
The next question was about Trump’s performance as president. Trump talked about the economy, his ability to unite people, his support of the military, and — at length — about how many more judges he appointed than had been appointed under Obama/Biden. That’s a niche topic, but one that political scientists have criticized Obama for before, so it was a pleasant surprise.
Biden focused on the economy, Trump’s softness towards Putin, and his disrespectful remarks towards the military. Biden was appealing to the hawks in the audience. The two candidates then had an ugly fight over Biden’s sons that served no public interest.
When President Trump was asked about climate change and the California wildfires, he skirted around the former and focused on the latter. Biden did the opposite and outlined his plan for fighting climate change. Either he thought the wildfires didn’t interest the electorate, or that they were a bad issue for him.
The final question was about electoral integrity. Trump’s received a lot of criticism over this issue and his waffling on whether he’d accept the electoral results.
Biden made a fairly anodyne statement encouraging everyone to vote. That’s a standard tactic for Democrats: self-identified Dems are slightly less likely to vote than Republicans. Trump expressed skepticism about mail-in voting, claiming fraud, and encouraged people to vote in person.
The debate featured much more debate over COVID-19 then the list of topics would suggest. The competing candidates both saw it as the most pressing issue on voters’ minds. The incessant, juvenile bickering made it difficult to tell their other priorities.