The Handbook
The Handbook

According to our recent readers’ poll, you love it when we write about politics. And you also hate it. Which sounds familar, politics nowadays is completely polarising and never more so than in the US. So last night I stayed up until 4am watching the first US presidential debate, mainly to irritate the reader who called me a c*nt for writing our political explainers. This one’s for you…

So where are the US elections at?

President Trump has presided over an economy in freefall, is widely blamed for over 200,000 coronavirus deaths, has sledged military heroes, stoked racial divisions and has shown over and over that he’s a corrupt grifter who, it now turns out, apparently pays less income tax than his cleaner. So as you can imagine, he’s doing pretty well. No, really.

Despite a constant avalanche of bad news stories, each enough to derail a ‘normal’ presidency, Trump’s approval ratings have remained remarkably steady over the last year. Meanwhile, former Vice President and Trump’s presidential challenger, an ageing and gaffe-prone Joe Biden, has seen his relative polling stay equally static, 7-10 points ahead of Trump. Which may be enough to win him the election, but given the unconventional state-by-state way the US system works, it’s really too tight to tell.

Which was the setting for this, the first of three Presidential Debates of the campaign and with just over a month to go until Election Day…

So what were the issues?

Respected journalist Chris Wallace played moderator (more like referee) and prepared questions on the new Supreme Court nomination, the pandemic, the economy and race relations. But it pretty much went off the rails from the first moment…

What happened?

Three old white guys in their 70s (if you include Wallace) basically shouted over each other for an hour and a half. President Trump behaved like a petulant teenager, constantly interrupting Biden, lobbing in a series of conspiracy theories and attacking Biden’s family.

For his part, Biden was often forced to follow Trump down a path of unpresidential mud slinging, though at least managed to make some coherent points to the camera addressing the American public. But overall it was a complete, chaotic mess.

This was less of a Presidential Debate and more of a back street bar brawl...

What were the insults?

Biden branded Trump a ‘liar’ a ‘clown’ and ‘the worst president America has ever had’, while Trump told his adversary “There’s nothing smart about you, Joe”, and hit back at accusations of being a liar by bringing up an old Biden gaffe. Trump also attacked Biden’s son, Hunter, for his previous problems with drugs and with a series of unproven conspiracy theories suggesting Biden was involved in corruption with his son.

And did we learn anything?

The two sparred around healthcare, with familiar debates around Obamacare expansion, while Biden refused to rule out making changes to the number of judges on the Supreme Court if Trump goes ahead and installs his third lifetime nominee.

President Trump also, again, refused to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power in case of him losing the election, and cited a number of concerns about election security, particularly around postal ballots.

But the big moment was when Donald Trump was asked by the moderator to denounce white supremacists. Astonishingly, he didn’t.

What about coronavirus?

One of the worst-hit COVID-19 countries in the world, America has seen over 200,000 citizens die from what Trump labelled ‘the China plague’. Biden attacked the president’s record, his claims that it would be over by Easter, that he was downplaying the dangers and that he’s handled it well. Trump countered with the familiar claim that many many more would have died under Biden and the two argued about the effectiveness of face masks (while Trump pulled his own mask out of his jacket pocket).

And where does this all leave us?

The vast majority of Americans have made up their minds about the race, and this debate will have only further entrenched those views. Neither side came out either unscathed or covered in glory and overall it was unpresidential, unedifying and just wild. But there are a small number of Americans who are wavering about which way to cast their ballot. And this is an election likely to pivot on very small numbers of voters in key states. It’s just unclear which way this debate will tip them…

Catch it in its entirety below…

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