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Larry Donnelly: Trump has the virus, but before he tested positive, we had the worst debate ever

Larry Donnelly looks at the state of the US election after this week’s ‘shameful’ debate, in the wake of the news about Trump and FLOTUS.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

NOT MANY HOURS ago, America and the rest of the world were still in a state of shock after watching a debacle of a debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which is analysed below.

That was before we were sent reeling again by another extraordinary wrinkle in an already topsy-turvy presidential campaign. There have been “October Surprises” before, but nothing quite like this.

The President and First Lady testing positive for Covid-19 injects even more uncertainty into an unprecedented race.

At present, there are a host of unanswerable, yet pivotal, questions. Whether there will be a second or a third debate is one.

At the top of everyone’s list, however, is how will Donald Trump’s diagnosis affect the dynamics in the final weeks and the eventual outcome? Nobody knows. To be blunt, all we can do now is wait and see.

The worst debate…ever

Every so often, words fail.  Plenty of us here in Ireland who stayed up until the wee hours to watch Trump, cross swords with Joe Biden, were on a similar wavelength as we witnessed what transpired in Cleveland on Tuesday. For me, the only word that possibly suffices is sad.

It may have been the most highly anticipated encounter between two White House aspirants in the history of presidential debates. Observers wondered how belligerent, personal and, yes, outrageous Trump would get and whether Biden would demonstrate that he is up to being the commander-in-chief or if he would lose his temper, make a gaffe or have a moment in which his allegedly deteriorating mental faculties were laid bare.

At the top of everyone’s list, however, is how will Donald Trump’s diagnosis affect the dynamics in the final weeks and the eventual outcome? Nobody knows. To be blunt, all we can do now is wait and see.

us-presidential-debate-illustrative-images-in-kiev-ukraine-30-sep-2020 Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

There was also widespread speculation as to how Chris Wallace, the seasoned Fox News journalist, would referee the clash.

Notwithstanding the oft-lampooned bias of the organisation he works for, Wallace is hugely respected and the philosophy he espouses about being the middle man – that viewers want to hear from the contestants, not the moderator – is broadly unassailable.  His testy interview this summer with Trump prompted further conjecture in terms of how it might inform his approach.

What happened ultimately – I think – exceeded all expectations, and not in a good way.  Starting first with Wallace, he has been the subject of harsh criticism for not reining the candidates in and allowing too many interruptions and insults. 

There may be a degree of objective truth to these points, yet equally, I don’t know if anyone could have done much better under the circumstances.  Indeed, the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced subsequently that it will be making changes “to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

True to character

Stylistically, everyone believed that Trump would come out hot and aggressive. Even by the extremely low standards we have come to collectively accept for his behaviour, the New Yorker was loud-mouthed and obnoxious throughout. 

His assertion that smart “was not a word that should be associated with Biden” and a man who was “last in his (university) class” was below the belt and distasteful.

Near the end, when Biden mentioned his late son Beau, Trump’s perfunctory shunting aside of the decorated military veteran and former Delaware attorney general, in order to launch a vicious attack at his opponent’s other son, Hunter, who has struggled with drug addiction, was contemptuous.

Trump did help his cause on two substantive fronts. His outlining of the impact of the economic shutdown engendered by what many feel has been a draconian overreaction from some Democratic governors to Covid-19 will have resonated with voters in those battleground states who have suffered financial ruin.  

And his favoured “law and order” mantra, combined with the repeated charge that Biden and his party are sympathetic to what some characterise as the violent underbelly of the Black Lives Matter movement, will appeal to a not insignificant swathe of men and women in suburban American.

On style, Biden appeared more presidential on the stage, not that this was any feat.  Although meandering initially, he improved as the 90 minutes went on and finished quite strong. 

Still – and despite his being deliberately provoked – it was disappointing to hear him call the president a “clown” (to his credit, he immediately tried to walk it back) and shouting at him to “shut up.” Trump is Trump; Biden, an experienced senior figure, should have avoided sinking to his level in this forum.

Substantively, Biden’s delineation of the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus was persuasive. It was wise of him to hit hard on it following opinion surveys showing that citizens over 65, who went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, disapprove of the administration’s response and have been peeling away from the incumbent.

Moreover, his looking straight at the camera and talking directly to the American people about the integrity of the electoral process was effective. When he did so, the overarching message was clear and compelling in light of the crass nature of the debate: “we can do better than this.”

‘We can do better’

Politically speaking, each candidate arguably made his biggest mistake within the same minute while addressing the country’s ongoing reckoning with the vexed topic of race relations.

Trump was foolish to make the bizarre comment that the “Proud Boys should stand down and stand by.” Biden was foolish then to draw a rather meaningless distinction: “Antifa is an idea, not an organisation.” Sceptics and foes will draw their own conclusions from these missteps.

Had Trump wholeheartedly said that he abhorred white supremacists, it would have been a rebuke to those who claim he is a racist. Additionally, he could have quickly put Biden on the back foot by asking if he felt the same way about those engaged in rioting and looting.

On the other hand, Biden’s non-statement about Antifa – regardless of his previous remarks repudiating lawlessness – will aid Trump’s adherents as they continue to press the case that the Democrat is a tool of radical liberals. 

There aren’t a whole lot of undecided, centrist voters left in the places that count. Yet they could prove crucial and they won’t have liked what either man had to say.

In the end, because he came into it ahead in the polls and because Donald Trump did not perform particularly well, Joe Biden probably won the debate. Will it move the political needle appreciably? I am not sure. Given the developments overnight with the diagnosis for FLOTUS and POTUS, anything can happen. But I am certain that we Americans were the biggest losers after that debate. It was a downright shameful affair.

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There might be two more debates. For all sorts of reasons, I would not miss them for the world. I suspect, however, that many who endured the first won’t tune in again. I can’t blame them.

Should Trump recover quickly and emerge from quarantine, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will face off this Wednesday in a vice-presidential debate. I am not making any predictions – except to say that it won’t embarrass the United States of America as badly as that “shitshow” (with thanks to Dana Bash of CNN for describing it so aptly) the other night.           

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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