PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden held competing ‘town halls’ (meetings with voters) on different US television channels at the same hour last night after failing to agree on a format for a second head-to-head debate.
Voters had the option of picking one to watch, channel hopping or catching up later on the internet on the one they missed. This was less than convenient. On the other hand, it avoided a repetition of their heavily criticised first debate on October 2 when they spent a lot of time shouting past each other.
The big question going in was whether ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, moderating the Biden event in Philadelphia, would raise the claim by the New York Post of proof that Biden, as vice president, knew about his son Hunter’s questionable dealings with Ukrainian businessmen to whom he allegedly promised insider access in Washington. He wasn’t asked.
Biden denies any knowledge of Hunter’s activities and the matter, promoted by Trump loyalists and somewhat thinly substantiated, wasn’t mentioned by either Stephanopoulos, the audience in Philadelphia or by Trump in Miami.
Trump’s town hall was hosted by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. She was more aggressive and interruptive in her questioning than Stephanopoulos, who was a member of Bill Clinton’s White House before becoming a television anchor.
Stephanopoulos concentrated more on policy and let Biden talk. Obama’s former vice president, dogged by questions about his sharpness at the age of 78, was fit and fluent. Guthrie, smiling but insistent, was more intent on coaxing some admission of past sin in office from Trump, especially over Covid, if not an actual ‘gotcha’ moment. He wasn’t prepared to play and kept his cool.
There was no drama and no virtual knockout delivered over the airwaves between Philadelphia and Miami. It’s unlikely that either event shifted the polls, which give Biden a strong lead at a crucial stage in the campaign.
Trump: Guthrie spent the first 20 minutes of her allotted hour probing Trump on his Covid management record, masking and particularly whether he was tested on the day he sat down with Biden for their Fox television debate. He was diagnosed positive a couple of days later. Trump wasn’t sure about the debate day test but said he was tested constantly.
He defended himself against charges that his response to the pandemic had been tardy, pointing out that he had quickly banned inward travel from China to the United States and had been criticised by Democrats for doing so. In a dig at Biden, who has stayed at home during the crisis months, he said that as president, he ‘couldn’t be locked in a room’.
Guthrie moved on to white supremacy, about which the media portray Trump as being suspect. Trump said he’d denounced it for years; what he also denounced was Antifa and the radical Left which were ‘burning down cities’ across America.
The president said he would accept a peaceful transfer of powers and wanted an honest election on November 3. But he stressed there was a ‘tremendous problem’ with postal ballots and ‘I want this to be clean.’
He didn’t deny the New York Times‘s claim that he owed $420million but said it was a tiny percentage of his net worth and stressed that he owed no money in Russia.
To a question about abortion, he avoided an answer on his personal position but said he had not discussed their potential votes with any of his three nominees to the Supreme Court. Defending the nomination of judge Amy Coney Barrett to the court on the eve of the election, Trump said Democrats would have done the same.
Asked why he should be re-elected, he shot back: ‘Because I’ve done a great job.’
Biden: The main takeaway from the Biden evening was his promise that before Americans vote he would announce his position on the Democrats’ threat to pack the Supreme Court if Barrett is confirmed, which is almost certain by the end of the month.
His pledge didn’t commit him one way or another but relieved him for the moment of pressure on a hot-button issue he has refused to address and that has pursued him and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. Barrett’s confirmation would give the Right a 6-3 majority on the court. The Democratic base fear a conservative court could overturn liberal gains on issues such as abortion and LGBT rights.
Biden reassured Americans that the Left’s hope of having the radical Green New Deal in place by 2030 would not be realisable although he would want to reach net zero emissions from the creation of energy by 2035. ‘Trump sees global warming as a joke, I see it as jobs,’ Biden said of Democrats’ controversial plans to green the economy by, among other things, getting rid of fossil fuels.
Biden said tax rises he has promised on the wealthy, which Trump claims would destroy jobs, were justified and worked his way steadily through his party’s talking points including an excoriation of the administration’s record on Covid and foreign policy. ‘This president embraces all the thugs in the world’ and has isolated the US from its friends, he charged.
Of the two men, Biden had the better deal. He was allowed to lay out his case without interjections whereas the adversarial Guthrie often cut Trump off before he’d finished replying to a question. He defended himself vigorously but was careful not to get into the kind of noisy arguments that make him look bad.
Trump and Biden are scheduled to meet in person for another debate in Tennessee on October 22.