It’s a daunting task to debate a pathological liar, but that’s exactly what Joe Biden will attempt to do Tuesday night as he squares off against Donald Trump in the first of their three scheduled presidential debates. Their ongoing war of words via press conferences, Zoom screens and catchy commercial soundbites will continue in-person on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
But beneath the spectacle of a Trump debate looms very real issues currently affecting the American people; issues that voters want to hear them address directly instead of dancing around them. That job will fall in the lap of Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday” who surely revised his initial line of questioning following an eventful past few days that have included a Supreme Court nomination; a questionable executive order on healthcare; allegations from Trump that Biden is using performance-enhancing drugs; a report that Trump’s campaign used a strategy to deter Black people from voting in 2016; and, not to be understated, a bombshell report about Trump’s history of “tax avoidance.”
Those and plenty of other circumstances would seemingly put Biden at a decided advantage going into the debate. But, as mentioned earlier, there is no accounting for a liar who refuses to acknowledge the truth and counters every single accusation by claiming “fake news” despite evidence to the contrary.
All of which sets the stage for a highly charged confrontation between presidential candidates just 35 days ahead of what is shaping up to be the most consequential election in modern history. The Commission on Presidential Debates last week released the topics that Matthew was using to craft his questions, giving people some insight as to what to expect. As such, here are five key things to watch for in the first debate Tuesday night.
1. The COVID-19 pandemic
After veteran journalist Bob Woodward‘s explosive series of interviews with Trump revealed the president’s blase approach to the coronavirus — an approach that arguably led to more than 200,000 Americans dying, and counting — but it also offered further confirmation of his racist feelings toward Black people and about white privilege. Matthews will undoubtedly place a question in the context of the pandemic, giving Biden a chance to direct the debate to how Trump “lied to the American people” about the coronavirus, as he’s said before. If done effectively, Biden will be able to render Trump expected lies futile in the face of facts: the president’s own words downplaying the coronavirus as a “hoax” and racially disrespecting Black people on audiotape for anyone to hear aloud.
2. ‘Race and Violence in our Cities’
Those questionable six words used by the Commission on Presidential Debates were immediately and widely condemned for presenting a false equivalence between race and violence amid nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. When the debate turns to this topic, Trump will likely repeat his claim protesters are looting and rioting. But it will also be an opportunity for Biden to correctly point out how Trump has defended the white people involved in the protests, including Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused murderer who shot two white protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It will also be a chance for Biden to dispel the notion that there is any link between race and violence, a premise that is racist in itself since race is not a topic only contextualized in terms of violence, crime and criminal justice.
3. “Rigging” the election
Biden and Trump have exchanged accusations of “rigging” the election as absentee ballots are expected to account for the lion’s share of votes cast amid social distancing guidelines for the pandemic. Biden claims that Trump’s move to affect the U.S. Postal Service would hurt chances of mailed absentee ballots being counted, as a slowdown of services could result in a delay of delivery that would result in those votes not arriving in time. Trump, who has voted via mail in the past, claims that mailing ballots will increase the chances of fraud. Knowing Trump’s proclivity to lie, the topic will be yet another opportunity for Biden to push back with facts with “evidence that voting by mail is rarely subject to fraud, does not give an advantage to one political party over another and, if done properly, can inspire public confidence in the voting process,” as University of Michigan political scientist Edie Goldenberg recently wrote. That, in turn, could perhaps prompt people who were on the fence about voting to go ahead and request absentee ballots and vote via mail if they don’t do so in-person.
4. Unemployment and the economy
With unemployment at a record high across all demographics, a growing multi-trillion dollar deficit and a tanking economy, the onus will be on both candidates to show they have plans to address those problems. Thus far, Trump has proven ineffective in trying to turn the economy around and has bristled at the idea of offering more financial relief to taxpayers, many of whom are out of work. Aside from talking about his plan to save the economy, another way Biden can gain traction on the issue is by bringing attention to how wealth inequality has widened since Trump’s election — perhaps by design with Trump’s 2017 tax plan that made the rich richer — and is set to worsen with the pandemic.
5. Trump’s taxes
Speaking of wealth inequality and taxation, the elephant in the room will be the New York Times’ report that Trump “has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life.” According to the Times, Trump has paid a total of $1,500 ($750 in each of the two years he did pay) in federal taxes since he’s been president and didn’t pay any federal taxes — zero dollars — in 10 of the past 15 years. Trump’s tax records also show he owes more than $300 million in overall debt and lost $47.4 million in 2018, which is a far cry from the $434.9 million he publicly boasted making that year. Critics have said Trump’s personal and professional finances create a clear conflict of interest as the president advocates for legislation to help him earn money. While the topic of Trump’s taxes were not listed as a topic for the debate, it is sure to come up.
Tuesday night’s debate is scheduled to take place at 9 p.m. ET on network TV. You can also watch a live stream online via the below video.
Biden and Trump are scheduled to debate again on Oct. 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and a week later on Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris is scheduled to debate Vice President Mike Pence Oct. 7 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.