Democratic nominee Joe Biden said during Tuesday's presidential debate that racist dog whistles of 1950 do not work any more. President Donald Trump appeared to be putting that theory to the test.
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News whether he would condemn white supremacist violence and tell groups to stand down, Trump initially said he would, then called on white supremacists like the the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by."
Several times, Wallace urged Trump to stop interrupting Biden and abide by rules his campaign had agreed to, leading to some speculation that the two subsequent debates on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 might be called off. Still, there was some discussion of major issues.
Biden took several opportunities to attack Trump's handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, including when the former vice president seized on Trump's familiar refrain about Democrats destroying suburbs.
"What really is a threat to the suburbs and their safety is his failure to deal with COVID. They're dying in the suburbs. His failure to deal with the environment. They're being flooded. They are being burned out because his refusal to do anything," Biden said. "That's why the suburbs are in trouble."
Biden did likewise in response to Trump's argument about how his administration has benefitted the Black community by building a strong economy before the pandemic and enacting legislation that ended some of the mandatory prison terms enacted in an anti-crime law Biden helped author.
"This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division. This is a man who in fact — you talk about helping African Americans, one in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of ... the coronavirus," Biden said. "And if he doesn't do something quickly, by the end of the year one in 500 will have been killed, one in 500 African Americans."
The substantive moments on the debate stage Tuesday night were limited, but not entirely absent. The early part of the debate featured discussion about the most pressing issues on Capitol Hill — the president's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, as well as health care more broadly and the COVID-19 pandemic in particular.
As the debate came to a close, Biden committed that he would not declare victory until election results are certified.
Trump did not. The president cast aspersions on mailing out ballots unsolicited, saying it was a prescription for fraud and citing the June Democratic primary in New York's 12th District as an example of what will happen in November.
That led to a rebuke on Twitter from the winner of that primary, House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (as well as a fundraising message from Maloney's campaign). The candidate she beat, Suraj Patel, also said his complaint was about voter disenfranchisement, not fraud, and that "Trump lied about what happened here."
Trump predicted that the election results would not be fair, citing early voting that has already begun.
"I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it," Trump said, claiming that "bad things happen in Philadelphia."
As the Philadelphia Inquirer explained, Trump was renewing a false claim about poll watchers being blocked from watching ballots being cast there.
Trump said he had nominated Barrett for the seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the simple reason that he's the president and the Republican Party has the majority in the Senate.
"The Democrats they wouldn't even think about not doing it ... the only difference is they would try and to do it faster. There's no way they would give it up. They had Merrick Garland, but the problem is they didn't have the election," Trump said, presumably talking about the GOP majority in the Senate when Garland was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2016. "So they were stopped, and probably that would happen in reverse also — definitely would happen in reverse. So we won the election, and we have a right to do it."
Biden argued, as he and other Democrats have previously, that the election should take place before there's a real debate about who should fill the Supreme Court seat.
"They are not going to get that chance now because we are in the middle of an election already, the election has already started," Biden said. "Tens of thousands of people have already voted, and so the thing that should happen is we should wait, we should wait and see what the outcome of this election is, because that's the only way the American people get to express their view is by who they elect as president and who they elect as vice president."
Biden avoided answering, however, when asked whether he would seek to increase the number of seats on the Supreme Court or support ending the legislative filibuster, the 60-vote requirement in the Senate to bring bills up for votes.
“Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue,” Biden said.
Biden framed the Supreme Court vacancy as part and parcel of the debate over the future of the 2010 health care law, and he rejected Trump’s assertion that offering the public an option to buy in to government-run coverage would eliminate private insurance. He appeared to conflate, however, the public option with another one of his campaign’s pillars — that people in states where Medicaid hasn’t expanded would get access to the public option for free if their incomes are low enough to qualify.
Trump said he supports overturning the 2010 law because “we want to give good health care,” but when pressed for details on how that would happen, he pointed to eliminating the mandate to buy health insurance and executive orders he’s signed that have not yet had a practical effect. “There is nothing symbolic,” Trump argued about his executive orders to protect guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting conditions, or lower drug prices.
Yet he frequently exaggerated the effect of his policies, saying insulin prices have become “so cheap it's like water.”
Fox's Wallace again asked if he had a more specific plan, leading Trump to contend that the debate was with the moderator rather than Biden. Trump also tried to play down what might happen if insurers can once again charge more or deny coverage based on health conditions.
In discussing the pandemic, Wallace questioned the president about his ongoing reluctance to publicly wear a mask and skeptical statements about the efficacy of facial coverings.
Trump pulled out a mask and said, "When needed, I wear masks."
"Masks make a big difference. His own head of the CDC said if we just wore masks ... everybody wore masks and social distanced between now and January, we probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters. It matters," Biden said.
"And they've also said the opposite. They've also said the opposite," Trump interjected, referring to past guidance from public health officials that has long since changed.
"No serious person said the opposite," Biden said.
Trump described his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as a success, and argued that if Biden was in charge, millions more would have died. He based that on an argument that Biden would have refused to restrict travel from China, a misleading statement that misrepresents Biden’s position and ignores gaps in the travel restrictions Trump imposed and that the virus was already spreading within the U.S. at the time.
Biden accused Trump of having no plan to stop the spread of the coronavirus and get people back to school and work. He said more money is needed for schools and businesses to acquire protective equipment and other resources needed to reopen safely. While Trump asserted that a vaccine was weeks away and that the military was “all set up logistically” to deliver it, Biden questioned why anyone should believe Trump’s assertions.
“This is the same man who's told you, by Easter, this would be gone away. By the warm weather, it would be gone miraculously,” Biden said.
Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.