The first clash between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was indisputably a low point in the history of presidential debates. There were plenty of discouraging moments, when Trump’s incessant bullying left moderator Chris Wallace pleading with the leader of the free world to stop interrupting. More frightening, a sitting president refused to condemn white supremacy and encouraged his far-right militant supporters to “stand back and stand by.”
But near the end, Biden delivered one of the best answers I’ve ever seen him give in a debate.
Wallace raised the topic of “election integrity,” giving both candidates two minutes to explain, “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”
First, Biden said he was “prepared to let people vote” and encouraged viewers to decide how, when, and by what means they would vote.
Next, he pointed out that Trump’s own Homeland Security director and FBI director said “there is no evidence at all that mail-in ballots are a source of being manipulated and cheating. They said that.” Millions of people will vote by mail because of COVID-19, Biden said–just like Trump himself votes by mail in Florida.
As for voting on election day, Biden said we need to make sure there are enough poll workers, adequate social distancing, and polling places that open on time and stay open until the votes are cast.
Biden then turned directly to the camera to address the viewers.
And this is all about trying to dissuade people from voting, because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate.
Show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote. If you’re able to vote early in your state, vote early. If you’re able to vote in person, vote in person, vote whatever way is the best way for you.
Because you will–he cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.
Democrats have been freaking out over the possibility that Republicans could suppress enough votes in key states to hand the election to Trump. Alternatively, the president could refuse to concede, or GOP-controlled legislatures could appoint slates of pro-Trump electors even if Biden wins the popular vote in their states. Barton Gellman explored some of the scenarios in a cover story for The Atlantic.
Biden attacked that sense of fatalism, discounting the idea that Trump may not accept the result if he loses.
And in terms of whether or not, when the votes are counted, and they’re all counted, that will be accepted. If I win, that will be accepted. If I lose, that will be accepted.
But by the way–if in fact, he says he’s not sure in what he’s going to accept, well, let me tell you something. It doesn’t matter. Because if we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go. He can’t stay in power. It won’t happen. It won’t happen.
So vote. Just make sure you understand, you have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like the next four years. Is it going to change, or are you going to get four more years of these lies?
When it was Trump’s turn to answer Wallace’s question, he wasted nearly 45 seconds spinning conspiracy theories related to the 2016 election and transition period. Things didn’t improve when he got around to the topic at hand. “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” Trump said. He ranted about ballots supposedly ending up in a wastepaper basket. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
The president then claimed, without evidence, that in some states 30 to 40 percent of mailed ballots were somehow getting lost. He complained about states that allow counting of ballots that arrive by November 10–not mentioning that those ballots all need to be postmarked by election day. As time ran out, Trump was complaining that states “run by Democrats” were planning “a rigged election.”
Imagine being a Republican field organizer trying to encourage GOP base supporters to vote early, when Trump seizes every opportunity to trash voting by mail. Democrats have a large advantage in absentee ballots requested so far, not just in Iowa, but also in a half-dozen other states that are battlegrounds for the presidency or the U.S. Senate.
I don’t know whether Biden will get a boost from this performance. The first two post-debate polls were encouraging for the Democrat, but as Dan Guild noted earlier today, “Debate bounces often don’t last.”
I do know that Democrats traumatized by the 2016 result–myself included–needed a reminder that it’s not constructive to fret about whether Trump will abide by the will of the people. Republicans want us to feel that the election is unwinnable. For now, what’s in our control is to make a plan to vote and execute that plan.
UPDATE: Most Iowa Republican leaders, including Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, said nothing on their social media feeds about Trump’s performance. In contrast, Governor Kim Reynolds put forward an alternative reality take endorsed by state party chair Jeff Kaufmann.