The First Presidential Debate and Its Aftermath

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By Shivaji Sengupta
One week after the now (in)famous presidential debate, the debate itself seems to be overshadowed by Donald Trump’s bout with COVID-19. The latter news fell upon us last Friday, the public alerted by the president’s own tweet. Up to then we were all knee-deep in discussing the debate. “Discussing” is perhaps not the right word: lamenting is more like it.
I have been following presidential elections actively since 1976 when Jimmy Carter squared off with Gerry Ford, the country’s interim president after Richard Nixon’s meteoric fall in 1974. Now, by a strange quirk of fate, Donald Trump, ironically an admirer of Nixon, seemed – not like a meteor but more like a fire-cracker fizzling out. The sound and fury of the past four years is, indeed, brining the president to a vivid and COVID end.
The debate of 2020 featured a stark contrast of two men: one, steady and upright, if often befuddled under pressure by the antics of a desperate opponent, verbigerating meaninglessly for long minutes at a time, creating Ballardian confusion and chaos, a very pathogen of verbal diarrhea. If Joe Biden was Utopia; Trump, was dystopia.
Americans are fond of describing such debates as a boxing match, with words like “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” running amok among commentators and journalists. Apparently, Trump’s camp(aign) had persuaded the president to “come out swinging,” “launch an outright frontal attack,” so that Biden wouldn’t know “what hit him.” So, when the debate “kicked off” with a question from the moderator, Mr. Chris Wallace of Fox News, “Why Donald Trump and the Republicans were claiming that nominating a Supreme Court Justice was their right,” Trump swiftly rephrased Wallace’s “right,” aggressively: “We won the election,” he rubbed it into Biden whose Democratic Party had described the nomination as an “abuse of power.” Thereafter, a debate that had started sedately enough, by the eighth minute, started veering off the rails. And it was Biden who took first the sharp turn.
Obviously, he had come prepared to attack Donald Trump where he is considered to be the weakest: the Coronavirus. Trump was actually dealing with why he was justified nominating a Supreme Court justice in the middle of an presidential election. Perceiving that the Democrats did not have much legal ground to stand on, Biden had decided he would cash-in on Amy Coney Barret’s stand against the Affordable Care Act, connect it to Trump’s disastrous record on COVID, mention the death of 200,000 people and the seven million ill, and make the audience almost forget about nominating controversy. The president, of course, expected this line of attack. But instead of unmasking the Democratic strategy outright, thereby alerting the audience of Biden’s ploy of trying to take advantage of a national catastrophe, the president fell right into the trap, like a huge hunted elephant. He started flailing around with words: accused Biden that had Coronavirus happened under his watch, not 200,000 but two million people would have died. A good comeback? Yes, if only Trump were right. The problem was that there was no way to prove that he was, because it was only speculation! On the other hand 200,000 and 7 million were real numbers flashing past American people every day. Trump tried to sneak in other numbers, none of them factual, and fell like off-target bullets, by the way side.

Round One: Biden.

Within ten minutes of the debate, Joe Biden had succeeded in making the moderator announce health care as the next item: clearly a Biden strong point because President Trump had been trying for almost four years to repeal the Affordable Care Act, without success. The failure to do so was because his Party’s representatives in Congress could not convince their constituents, especially down South were many poor Americans live, to repeal AFC. The Republicans were finally able to repeal the fine that every citizen refusing medical insurance would have had to pay, by getting the courts to declare the penalty as a “tax. When Republicans took over Congress in 2017, they were able to declare the penalty as “zero dollar tax.” It was the only casualty they were able to fling on Affordable Healthcare.
Now, the Republicans are hoping that a conservative Supreme Court would entirely nullify the Affordable Care Act based on the fact that there was no tax levy for those without medical insurance.
This was the moment in the debate Biden was waiting for.
If the Supreme Court nullified AFC, twenty million Americans, Biden announced, would lose health insurance. In 2010, forty-one million Americans did not have medical coverage. The Affordable Care Act succeeded in bringing coverage to roughly fifty per cent of those Americans, amounting to about twenty million, mostly poor Americans. Now, Joe Biden knows very well that in spite of a Right-leaning Supreme Court, it would be it would be almost impossible for the Court to throw out AFC in its entirety. Another thirty million elderly citizens on social security may also lose insurance because of preexisting conditions. Add to that, the Coronavirus, and those that want to outlaw Affordable Care Act themselves run the risk of becoming outlaws! The election is here! This is not a good time for Donald Trump to cross swords with Joe Biden over health-care. Biden would be the home-team here; Trump, a mere fugitive! Interestingly, when Wallace asked Trump where was his healthcare plan, Trump brought up “individual mandate,” knowing that he was standing on shaky grounds. Biden explained that only the very poor, on Medicaid, would have to abide by the individual mandate. The very poor couldn’t care, as long as they still have medical insurance.

So Trump lost Round Two.

Most people noticed the 73 times Trump interrupted either Biden or Chris Wallace. The interruptions got so bad that Biden, usually known for good nature and a follower of rules, himself committed the same crime 27 times, and was even downright rude. Once he said, “Will you shut up, man!” Another time he called him a clown. Trump, on his part, didn’t call Biden names, but made up for the good behavior by openly implying that Biden was stupid, denegrated Hunter Biden for having been a drug-addict. In response, Joe Biden looked straight at the camera and addressed the American people, telling us that yes, Hunter did used to be a drug-addict, but he had beaten the habit. There are over four million people in the United States who are addicted with drugs. Joe Biden’s open and sincere admission could have brought him many sympathizers. Trump’s harsh attitude probably alienated many.
This was not your normal debate; but, then few things are where Trump is involved.
Predictably, Donald Trump lost the debate, not because he was rude and wayward, but as I have argued above, his strategies misfired. His campaign officials, of course, declared him the winner. The polls show otherwise. The Coronavirus meanwhile began to be on the upswing. At the time of writing this nearly four thousand new cases were registered across America in just one day.
One of them was President Donald Trump. And not just him. As many as seven White House officials (not counting the president and his wife who is also COVID positive) have joined the president. The country was briefly alarmed until Donald Trump was discharged from the hospital, apparently at his own insistence and against the wishes of his doctors. Meaning to take high road to recovery, Donald Trump turned the convalescence period into bravado, obstinately declaring he is OK, better than he’s felt “in twenty years,” encouraging fellow Americans not to be cowed down by the disease, to live life vigorously.
“Cowards die many times before their death,” Shakespeare wrote, and Trump wants to take credit for being brave. He has declared himself ready for battle, in this case, the second debate on October 15. But Shakespeare also wrote, “discretion is the better part of valor.”
It is something our president is yet to learn.

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