Wide policy gaps on oil industry, Covid-19, immigration and race relations
A substantive final U.S. presidential debate vividly showed the stark policy differences between the two candidates and political parties, with President Donald Trump getting some opportunities in the few days remaining in the presidential campaign to take on some of these policy issues in a likely effort to expand his base, despite more than 45 million Americans having already voted.
Key topics addressed during the debate included:
Covid-19: Biden warned of a “dark winter” as Trump said the virus will “go away” and promised quick vaccines. “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president,” Biden said, a statement some said was too strong in blaming the president for all of the deaths. Trump focused on the vaccines in development, his mobilization of resources in the spring, and the need to balance protection of the vulnerable with reopening the country.
“We’re rounding the corner,” said Trump, adding that people were “learning to live” with the virus. Biden shot back: “He says . . . we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.” When pressed on the timing of a vaccine, Trump said his timeline would be “more accurate” than the estimates provided by health experts.
Biden said voters could not trust the president, saying: “This is the same fellow who told you this is going to end by Easter last time, this is the same fellow who told you that, don’t worry, we’re going to end this by the summer. We’re about to go into a dark winter . . . and he has no clear plan.”
On potential future lockdowns, Trump says no while Biden says maybe.
Character: Both candidates questioned each other’s character. Trump repeated a claim that Biden received money from overseas business deals related to his son, Hunter. “He’s a corrupt politician, so don’t give me the stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” the president said. Biden said he had “not taken a penny” from foreign sources and suggested Trump was dishonest. “You know who he is, you know his character. You know my character.”
Biden sought to turn the tables by pointing to the president’s tax returns. “What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling?” The president said that his taxes remained under audit by the Internal Revenue Service and that he would release them “as soon as we can. I want to do it. And it will show how successful, how great this company is.”
Political outsider: On several topics, Trump said Biden's remarks showed he was a typical politician and that the president remains an outsider with results. On one topic Trump said: “That’s a typical political statement…I’m not a typical politician. That’s why I got elected.”
Trump repeatedly accused Biden of failing to deliver during the Obama years, telling him at one point: “I ran because of you. I ran because of Barack Obama — because you did a poor job. If I thought you did a good job, I would’ve never run.”
Fracking and the oil industry: Trump claimed that Biden would ban fracking, the gas-extracting technology that has helped the U.S. become energy independent and is critical in Pennsylvania, one of the swing states in the election. Biden said he had ruled out banning fracking, only for new permits on federal lands, but post-debate news stories detailed Biden several times saying he would ban fracking, as did his running mate, Kamala Harris.
In a heated exchange about climate change and environmental policy, Trump asked Biden if he would close down the oil industry. Biden replied: “I would transition from the oil industry, yes... The oil industry pollutes significantly . . . it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” Trump quickly said, “That’s a big statement," suggesting he believed he had landed a blow. Trump said, “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?” After the debate, Biden clarified his comments, saying he did not plan to close the oil industry. “We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re going to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.”
Some Democrats sought to distance themselves from Biden’s comments. Kendra Horn, a Democratic congresswoman seeking re-election in Oklahoma, a state with a large oil and gas sector, said on Twitter that she did not agree with the former U.S. vice president, adding: “We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.” Speaking to reporters after the debate, Biden said fossil fuels would not be eliminated “for a long time . . . probably 2050.” Biden’s campaign said after the debate that he would eliminate oil subsidies.
Foreign policy: Biden accused Trump of cozying up to Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, whom Biden called “a thug”. Trump said his rapport with Kim had prevented war. “Having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing,” Trump said. Biden responded: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe,” a statement that most found errant.
Race relations: Biden accused Trump of fueling racism, prompting his rival to say he had done more for African-Americans than any U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln and calling himself “the least racist person in this room.” Biden responded: “Abraham Lincoln over here is the most racist president we’ve ever had.”
Trump scored points by noting what he has done to help the Black community, including criminal justice and prison reforms and opportunity zones, along with helping get the Black unemployment level to record lows before the pandemic hit.
Trump was asked to speak directly to Black Americans about the dangers they face at the hands of police. The president quickly moved the discussion to Biden’s role as a co-author of the 1994 crime bill while he represented Delaware in the Senate. The president accused Biden of using the term “super-predator” to describe minority youths as he sold his tough-on-crime proposals. (Biden referred to “predators on our streets” in a 1993 speech but didn’t use the term “super-predator.”)
Biden acknowledged that the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s were a mistake, adding that he now believed “we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense.” But he accused the president of dividing the nation, saying he “has a dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”
Immigration: The two candidates sparred over a recent revelation that more than 500 children who crossed into the U.S. with family members remained stranded because their parents — who have since been deported — cannot be found. “Those kids are alone,” Biden said. “Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.” Trump insisted the children were “so well taken care of” and accused the Obama administration of building the cages to house detainees. “Who built the cages, Joe? Talk about who built the cages,” Trump said.
Health care: Trump said the future of the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s chief legacy, was in the courts “because ObamaCare is no good.” But the president said if the law remained intact following a Supreme Court challenge after the election, as most expect, the federal government “will have to run it, and we’ll have ObamaCare.”
Biden reiterated his support for a public option — as opposed to a more- expansive Medicare-for-all system — under the existing ObamaCare law. “The reason why I had such a fight with 20 candidates for the nomination was I support private insurance,” he said, pointing to his victory in the Democratic primaries.
Comments: The moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, showed what is needed for a worthwhile debate, along with the two-minute segments that the candidates had to state their positions without interruption. While the typical broadcast news and cable channels had their usual spins on the debate, Biden's comments on a few issues important to key swing states, especially on the oil industry and race relations, will give President Trump something to campaign on in the 11 days before Nov. 3 elections and likely will play into his strategy to expand his base to get more potential Trump voters to actually vote.