When it was time for U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger for the 2020 election, former Vice-President Joe Biden, to go toe-to-toe in their first ever presidential debate, there was no expectation that the much-anticipated event would showcase bipartisan bonhomie or statesman-like conduct. Yet, the low bar of uncivility on display, undergirded by hostility and a lack of mutual respect, made the event at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, a disturbing spectacle. Almost throughout the 90-minute extravaganza of cognitive disconnect, the two candidates interrupted each other, name-called, and generally made obvious their disdain for the other. A low point for Mr. Trump was when he wilfully sidestepped a passionate defence by Mr. Biden of his late son, Beau, to segue into a vector of proven lies about Mr. Biden’s other son, Hunter, and his business dealings in Russia and the Ukraine. Similarly, Mr. Biden hardly covered himself in glory when he said to Mr. Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”, or referred to him as a clown, a liar and a racist. While many might empathise with Mr. Biden’s sentiments in this context, given Mr. Trump’s record on issues of race, his personal finances and taxes, and his penchant for indulging in acerbic bombast, some Democrats might have hoped that Mr. Biden would hold himself to a higher standard.
One thing that the verbal brawl made clear is that the two leaders will likely offer radically different policy visions, in a sense making the choice between them a straightforward one on November 3, Election Day. Mr. Trump dug his heels in on choosing a right-leaning candidate for the vacant seat in the U.S. Supreme Court after the passing of liberal stalwart Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He refused to label a known white supremacist gang as racists. He stood his ground on his intention to dismember the Affordable Care Act passed by former President Barack Obama — when Mr. Biden was his deputy — by killing off the individual mandate. On every policy of serious consequence to the American middle class, whether in the realms of health care and the COVID-19 response, immigration, job creation, clean energy or women’s reproductive rights, Mr. Trump defended the very same approach he has followed for the past three and a half years. Yet his bungling, ambiguous pandemic response speaks for itself, as does his disastrous record on saving jobs in its wake, and his uncompromisingly harsh tack on immigration. Mr. Biden’s policy agenda might be an echo of the Obama years, reflecting traditional, mainstream Democratic Party values that some Americans have grown to resent. Yet, if he can convince the American people, not of any grand liberal vision but simply that he will better Mr. Trump’s low performance bar, this election might be Mr. Biden’s to lose.