If the American people had to endure 90 minutes of cross-talk and disruption last month during the first presidential debate, the alternative – the clashes, simultaneous City Hall events Thursday with President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. – it wasn’t. much of an improvement.
Mr. Trump tested positive for coronavirus after the first debate, and citing security, the presidential debate commission said the second debate, scheduled for October 15, should have been virtual. Mr. Trump refused, so Mr. Biden planned a town hall on ABC. Mr. Trump then scheduled his on NBC, at exactly the same time.
It is an open question whether Mr. Trump’s move of trying to push Mr. Biden off the stage worked to his advantage. The whole strategy of Biden’s campaign was to fly low to victory. Mr. Trump could have made it easier with a boisterous performance than Mr. Biden’s – which one of Mr. Trump’s advisors likened to “watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood,” suggesting that a resemblance to beloved Fred Rogers was a bad thing.
Here are six tips from dueling town halls of the night.
Trump trampled on his message with his refusal to denounce QAnon.
After Trump went through days of headlines and headaches over his refusal to condemn white supremacy during the first presidential debate, he was ready to offer a no-hedge complaint Thursday. “I denounce white supremacy, okay?” she told the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, almost before she finished her question.
The rare force on the subject made even more cruel Trump’s clumsy refusal, minutes later, to renounce QAnon’s false conspiracy theory.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Trump said, despite amplifying a claim discredited by proponents of the theory just days ago.
Ms. Guthrie quickly illustrated how the far-right movement falsely claims that the Democrats are a satanic cult that practices pedophilia. “Can you just say once and for all that this is not entirely true and disown QAnon in its entirety?” he pressed.
“I know they are very much against pedophilia – they fight it very hard,” Trump said. Later, he repeated that phrase, almost with encouragement: “What I feel about it is that I am strongly against pedophilia. I agree. I agree with that. “
Keep up with Election 2020
Mr. Trump has long been wary of speaking ill of supporters, and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory are among its most ardent supporters. “I understand that they like me a lot,” he said over the summer, after noting that “they love our country.”
Ms. Guthrie may have uttered the most memorable line of the night when she questioned Mr. Trump about a recent retweet of a discredited conspiracy theory that Mr. Biden had orchestrated actions to get SEAL Team 6, one of the military units of the country, killed. elite of the country. to cover up the alleged false death of Osama bin Laden. Mr. Trump said with a shrug, “I’ll put it out there.”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Guthrie replied. “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle.”
Biden suggested making masks and vaccines mandatory.
The question of how to handle a pandemic that has engulfed the nation in the past six months is almost certainly the starkest difference between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, and this was clear in their city halls.
Mr. Trump downplayed the danger of the virus, despite being hospitalized after falling ill. He made fun of Mr. Biden for wearing a mask and resisted the idea of making them mandatory. Mr. Trump theatrically removed his mask during his election demonstrations; Mr. Biden revealed that he wore two masks before taking the stage, a preventative measure that some doctors say is effective.
Mr. Biden said he himself would get a vaccine by the end of the year and urge other Americans to do so, “if the body of scientists said this is what’s ready to be done and it’s been tested.”
He also said he could support the vaccination requirement, but acknowledged that such a measure would be difficult to enforce. “You can’t say everyone has to do it, but it’s like you can’t impose a mask,” he said.
That said, Mr. Biden was walking on difficult ground. There is a long history of resistance to mandates in this country; think Obamacare and the individual mandate. And a significant number of Americans have opposed taking vaccines in the past; one of the big questions is how many Americans will get a coronavirus vaccine once it is developed, sent or not.
“It’s thorny,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political advisor. “But it was realistic. People need to have faith in a vaccine. So you can’t play games like Trump. “
Biden also said he expects Trump to take a Covid-19 test before their next debate on Oct.22, in accordance with rules set by the presidential debate commission. “Before I came here, I took another test,” he said. “I take it every day.”
He said he wouldn’t come to town hall if he tested positive. “I didn’t want to come here and not expose anyone,” he said. “And I just think it’s just decency to be able to determine if you’re clear or not.”
Trump has clung to an unpopular posture about masks and the pandemic.
Masks are politically popular. They are welcomed as a public health necessity by experts and a broad cross section of the American public. One of Mr. Trump’s advisers, Chris Christie, said Thursday that he had been “Wrong” not to wear a mask in the White House. But Mr. Trump, despite having recently contracted the coronavirus and required hospitalization for it, still can’t come up with a full-throat hug with the mask.
“I’m fine with masks – I tell people, ‘Wear masks,'” she said. But he couldn’t resist an addendum. “Just the other day,” he said, he had seen a study that showed people who use masks were still contracting the virus.
He tried to overturn the position of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, on masks. And it rejected the scientific consensus.
“People with masks are always catching it,” he added.
It was exactly the kind of digression that left Republicans frustrated: six months, eight million cases and more than 215,000 deaths later, the president is still trying to bend the reality of the pandemic to his politics rather than the other way around.
The pandemic has disrupted American life like no other event and per capita death rates are higher than in other developed nations, yet Trump continued to argue that his administration’s response was a success. “We are a winner,” said Trump, speaking of “excessive mortality”. He added: “What we did was fantastic and we did an amazing job.”
Eventually Biden went to court to pack – more or less.
Mr. Biden made the news: After vigorously avoiding the issue recently, he signaled that he would announce before election day if he supports the expansion of the number of seats on the Supreme Court. But he said he wanted to wait until after the Senate acted on the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This was a difficult problem for Mr. Biden and it seems likely that it was not a planned response. Many Democrats have called for the Supreme Court to be expanded after Trump and Senate Republicans forward accused it of filling the vacancy created by Judge Ginsburg’s death, even though it was so close to the election. If that were to happen, Mr. Trump would have appointed three high court judges.
Mr. Biden has made it clear in the past that he does not support the idea. He avoided the question during the campaign by saying he didn’t want to play into Trump’s hands and divert attention from what Republicans were doing with the Ginsburg vacancy. But he agreed with the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, that voters have a right to know his views, and set a schedule to disseminate them.
It may not have been enough to leave the problem behind.
“His ‘courtship’ response, or lack of response, was a bit disconcerting,” Priscilla Southwell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Oregon, said via email. “So, he says voters should know his position on this issue, but not before the confirmation process is over. At that point, the majority of voters will have already voted, including this voter. “
Still M.I.A .: a second term Trump agenda.
Mr. Trump had kind words for conspiracy theorists; he would not say if he tested negative for coronavirus on the day of the first debate (“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t”); and continued to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.
He didn’t have much to say, however, about the extensive second term program.
When Mr. Trump talked about politics, it was mostly about calling his record into question. He was very fluent, and clearly more at ease, when he talked about economics and warned about the impact of Mr. Biden’s election, saying the nation would end up with a depression like you’ve never had.
He said he was negotiating a stimulus plan with President Nancy Pelosi, although they are not in terms of speech. “I am ready to sign a great, beautiful stimulus,” he said. Incidentally, he also offered one of the all-time great euphemisms about his imprint on a G.O.P. often docile.
“Maybe I’ve changed the party a lot over the past three years,” Trump said.
But the lack of vision for the next four years – and for dealing with the remaining months and years of the pandemic – is a glaring and unaddressed weakness for Trump. When Ms. Guthrie gave him the chance to give his closing speech for another four years, he began: “Because I did a great job.” There were few other specs besides the classic Trumpian boast. “Next year,” he promised, “it will be better than ever.”
What if Biden loses?
Mr. Biden is in many ways an entirely conventional candidate for the White House, particularly compared to Mr. Trump. He has dedicated a lifetime to elected office: 36 years in the Senate, two terms as vice president under Barack Obama and three bids for the White House. So her willingness to answer questions about what she would do if she lost was surprising – as a rule, this is a question candidates avoid. (The textbook response: “I’m not going to lose.”)
Perhaps it was because polls show him in a strong stance against Mr. Trump. Or why Mr. Trump recently talked about losing. But when a voter asked how he could try to influence a second Trump administration if he lost, Biden said he would likely go back to teaching, “focusing on the same issues of what constitutes decency and honor in this country.” He added: “It’s just something that got me involved in public life to begin with.”
Mr. Stephanopoulos approached with a question: What will he say about the country if Mr. Trump is re-elected?
“Well, you could say I’m a lousy candidate and I haven’t done a good job,” Biden said. “I hope he doesn’t say we are racially, ethnic and religiously at odds with each other as the president seems to want us to be.”