01 October 2020

"That's democracy”. The imperfection of a US presidential debate

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

There were no fireworks -as, most likely, candidate Trump would have wanted, nor a debate on economic and political programs – as, probably, would Biden have preferred. Nor there were direct violent ad personam attacks (calling your enemy a “liar” is no longer anything but a political statement) although there were many references to some members of the family, personal businesses, qualities and imperfections. Trump talked way more, has gesticulated more, interrupted a lot more but he did not emphasize things enough. Biden was more stable, did not use a colored language as the president, he attitude was unchanged and, when he had the opportunity, he attacked. The US presidential debate that took place on September 29th, organized in Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the most incoherent political debates witnessed in the last decades within the US policy. However, and maybe that’s the cause, the public dialogue of these two candidates for the November 3rd elections did not contribute too much to changing or clearing the options of the 10-15% undecided voters, who only have one month left to choose the president they want. Maybe they will do it at the following debates, to take place on October 15 and 22 for the presidential candidates and October 7th for the vice-president position candidates.

Image source: Profimedia

Electoral debates are no longer what they used to be

Not even in the USA. It has been a long time since a good 90 minutes or a two-hour performance was simply astonishing. Like Nixon’s debate in 1960, when his sweating impressed so much or the 1980 one, when Reagan dominated Carter through his short answers.

 The information environment does not allow it to happen anymore. Television is no longer the main information channel, and the fact that, in certain moments, they have an extremely large public only brings it to the level of the other information sources.

Social media makes candidate’s relation with his voters to be permanent and the dialogues, the disputes and the pugilistic attacks to be produced before a face-to-face meeting and to continue long after that.

Even in the USA the questions about the use of these debates became more and more frequent, especially that, starting with the 2016 campaign, the debate stage was replaced, often, with a space of ad personam attacks, insults, improvised theatre, or a space wherein unproved allegations are being made. But, as a well-known American analyst, Richard M. Perloff, was saying, a few days before the September 29th debate, “But that’s democracy. It puts its faith in the aggregated judgments of the many rather than the more sophisticated arguments of the few”.

But televised debates are still important from other perspectives:

-they are part of an electoral tradition old for decades, a respect common law for an electorate that needs to see a direct confrontation between the two candidates. The debate is, in fact, the hiring “interview” that most of the Americans have to pass before getting a job. Of course, the “file” matters and the employer already made a decision before, but seeing the person, interacting with him, has the final say;

-they are placing the candidates in a limited fight situation, as they try to convince they have better programs and they are the perfect people to run;

-they reveal the qualities or imperfections, character’s figures, the capacity to work under stress, to act and stay, at the same time, “presidential”.

Thus, from this specific point of view, whoever expected for this first presidential debate out of the three planned for the US electoral campaign to change anything in the already pretty clear reports or the vote options for the two candidates had great expectations.


Some things about the context the debate took place in

Most likely, president Trump wanted to “skip” these televised presidential debates, regardless of the tradition that stays behind these, if the format would not have been thought to be advantageous by his campaign team, given his media records, and if this would not have been one of his last chances to make a difference in the vote options revealed lately.

There is an 8-9% distance between the two candidates, favoring Biden, and it did not change at all in the last months. Indeed, it is a vote based on the popular vote, and during the last elections, Trump, although he lost this vote, with around a 3 million votes difference, he won thanks to the favorable electoral system, based on electoral colleges. The three million votes also represented a 2% difference favoring Hillary Clinton. Now, however, the difference is four times bigger.

Another important element is the fact that the electoral debate between the candidates is especially given for the undecided states, ten in number, which are the ones to decide the winner. One of them is Ohio, where the debate took place. At the last elections, Trump won here and he adjudged his unexpected victory. This time, the polls show that Biden is the preferred one.

This is why Trump’s team thought these debates are needed to change the campaign’s run. President’s aggressive debate style, as well as the apparent fragility of his counter candidate in terms of their opinions’ exchange was the reason which made the president accept the organization of these debates.

The pre-debate tactical “puns”. The campaign teams of the two candidates used other information channels as well to prepare the ground to the televised debates and to place some anti-enemy mines.  

Thus, Trump’s teams asked for the verification of his counter-candidate, Joe Biden, so that he does not wear any recording devices during the debate. He was suggesting that his democratic opponent needs help in the confrontation he has with Trump, doubtful of his combative abilities and memory. Indeed, Biden’s team refused.

Trump’s team was also suggesting on social media that Biden would have asked two 30 minutes pauses during the 90 minutes of debate, to “freshen up his forces”.

Biden’s team was also forced to face the statement according to which Trump’s image counselor would have asked debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, to never refer to the number of deaths provoked by COVID-19 (one of the debated topics).

The “unpaid taxes file”. Two days before the debate, the New York Times magazine was publishing a report claiming that, for 15 years, Trump did not pay taxes but for 5 years, and for 2016 and 2017 these were also worth of 750 dollars. The president denied, of course, publication’s allegations, calling, this time also, on “millions” of taxes, but he did not offer concrete data because of an audit procedure he is going through. The details the New York Times revealed have far more negative consequences for Trump’s campaign:

-the reason the president used for the law taxes’ level, the big loses his companies suffered, show that he is not the successful business man he claims to be;

-the statements’ regarding the business loses led to returns from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) worth of tens of millions of dollars. These statements and the accounting of the companies are the main subject of a financial audit which, if proved that the situation was not the presented one, could have financial (returning the money) or criminal consequences.

-during the last year, the foreign taxes, for the companies he registered in other states, were bigger than the ones paid in the US;

-some numbers in his excess reports came from payments and foreign contributions, sometimes in countries led by autocratic leaders;

-huge amounts, almost 20% of the incomes, were paid for consultancy, sometimes even within the family, Ivanka Trump, for example, being considered a “paid” consultant and high actuary in these companies;

-keeping the appearance of a “successful business man” was also created by the successful TV program “The Apprentice” which brought him incomes worth of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Of course, the situation with unpaid taxes was known and discussed publicly during the previous presidential campaign. It was then seen by the majority as a proof of "financial intelligence" of the candidate who managed to skip the American tax system. This time, the presented figures, much more concrete and detailed, created an unpleasant turn for Trump, especially the $ 50 taxes for a whole year, a bill that a usual employee pays monthly to the US Treasury. For the American voters, big political issues are not always relevant in the voting booth decision. But when it comes to money, taxes, the situation changes. Democratic candidates immediately seized the opportunity and publicly presented their own taxes paid to the state: Joe Biden - $ 300,000 for his 2019 income, Kamala Harris - $ 1.19 million in taxes for the $ 3.1 million in revenue in the same year. And this happened just hours before the televised debate.

And now about the televised debate

The moderator himself chose six topics for debate which he sent to the candidates' campaign teams. The six proposed topics were: 1. The political balance sheets of the two candidates; 2. The Supreme Court; 3. COVID-19; 4. Economy; 5. Racial situation and urban violence; 6. Integrity of elections. The order of their discussion was to be at the moderator's discretion.

There was, however, a great distance between the intentions of Chris Wallace, the moderator sent by Fox News for this debate, and the reality in the ring in Cleveland, Ohio. The two fighters had different goals, one, President Trump, to lure his opponent into a hand-to-hand fight, the other, candidate Biden, to remain distant and stay in the fight, while the moderator had to beware, in turn, of a few blows through the ricochet.

The Supreme Court was discussed. And it was also discussed the possibilities that, by appointing a new judge, Amy Coney Barrett, from the "conservative camp", it will be possible to block the Obamacare program, the one so contested by the Republicans. And not just by them. This allowed Trump to move the discussion to Biden's health and make a reference to the "socialist medicine" promoted by this program. The former vice-president did not remain indebted and made the president a "clown", taking the moderator as a witness, and then he started a discussion about the intelligence of the candidates. This is where the discussion about justice and health came into play.

The COVID-19 topic was about wearing or not wearing a mask. To show that he knows how to follow the rules, the President took off a mask during the debate. He put it back in his pocket and continued explaining why it didn't need to be worn all the time. "As his opponent does", he went on to say. Biden responded that a more active pro-mask attitude would have saved, perhaps, 100,000 lives after January 2020. Here, too, the discussion was extended collaterally to an accusation, this time of Biden: “You are the worst president America had”. The allegations came brought another topic to light, the American tax system.

Trump said the taxes deducted were allowed by Biden's unreformed system. In a reverse logic, the president defended himself for the reduced payments to the American tax office by the fact that this is how this system is made, and part of the blame belongs to Biden, who did not reform it in the 25 years he was senator. In this regard, Trump's attitude was defensive, among the few moments of this kind as he did not want deepen a sensitive topic for any voter. Perhaps Biden would have scored even more in this regard if, in turn, he had shown that he understood how the tax system works.

Racial issues were mixed with a discussion about far-right and left-wing organizations. Although it was announced to be one of the decisive topics, the debate on the racial situation and urban violence went into detail. Trump equalized between far-right White Supremacists and far-left "Antifa" ideologies, trying to link his candidate and the Democratic Party to the latter. Biden's claim that the classification was made by FBI Director Chris Wray himself, including during a congressional hearing in September, was ignored by President Trump, who insisted that a future election of Biden would further ignite the spirits in the American suburbs.

Climate change was just a parenthesis, with a reference to the fact that these, together with COVID-19, are at the reason of violent manifestations that could continue to occur in American cities/their suburbs in the coming period. Otherwise, it was a discussion about plans and promises, about economic effects, with a line drawn more towards economic needs, by Trump, or towards ecological ones, by Biden.

The electoral support received from the force structures by President Trump was evoked, thus blocking the discussion about the suburban riots and the policies to combat them. The debate could have had a delicate turn for candidate Trump if Biden had remembered in time that he, in turn, is backed by more than 500 former defense and security officials, including two former presidential advisers to the Trump administration. It was not to be.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the debate, being invoked by Biden when he characterized his opponent as "Putin's puppy", emphasizing the difference between the Trump administration's concessive approach to Russia's actions and the former vice president's had, and will have it, on to the Russian president. This time, President Trump could have responded with the record level of sanctions against Russia and the lack of direct contacts at the presidential level. This was not the case either, the discussion reaching, again, personal issues. However, the Democratic candidate's attempt to take over the aggressive style of his opponent was noteworthy.

The discussion about the integrity and recognition of election’s result remained unclear. President Trump went on to claim that the email vote allows for fraud, hyperbolizing that "it will be a fraud like you've never seen before". Biden reminded him that even he, the president, would vote by mail, sending the envelope to Florida, where he is registered as a voter. In fact, the discussion is about the voter profile of those who use this system and who seem to benefit the democratic camp.

The debate ended with an attempt by the moderator to get the consent of the two candidates to recognize the election result. He got one.


Most of the voters are already decided, so the debates will change nothing…

…but there are still things to that could be changed. There are two other presidential debates and one organized for the candidates for the vice-president position. One of the most famous American TV moderators, Stephen Colbert, was stating, after the debate, that he is waiting for the debate of the vice-presidents to actually see, eventually, some political coherence. It was not what the New York Times expected, a confrontation of “styles and ideas” and it was not what Colbert probably wanted and, most likely, it was not that Chris Wallace wanted to present.

But electoral wars are not won through fights that start by emphasizing the development rules. The unpredictable plays an increasing role in getting the victory. Trump bet, in 2016m on the anti-establishment feeling of the voters in the big American cities. On his successful business man position, an “outsider” of the politics. But America changed dramatically in the last years, and the health crisis has contributed even more to a strong radicalization and political and social polarization. The feelings are even stronger and the decisions as well. This led to a consolidation of the votes’ options for most of the voters, long before the vote’s day.

But this is just a theory. With an unpredictable actor, like president Trump, and such a tense situation, like the one the US is now facing, surprises are in the program. With or without these debates. “This is how democracy works”.

Translated by Andreea Soare