10 Things for North Carolina to Take Away From a Chaotic Biden-Trump Debate

In this combination image of two photos showing both President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

By Billy Ball

September 30, 2020

The first debate involved a lot of shouting and interruptions, mostly from the president. But in North Carolina, it was really about health care and jobs. 

The first debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump was a microcosm for the year—bewildering, loud, terrifying, and chaotic.

Trump and Biden had what can technically be called a presidential debate, although it was as aggressive and unhinged a display as we are ever like to see on such a stage.

North Carolina received a shout-out (once!) from President Trump at the midway point through the 90-minute fracas, although the president did not finish his statement so it’s hard to know what precisely he had to say about our state.

The consensus from pundits afterward was this debate was grotesque.

“I’m 80% sad, and 20% mad as hell,” former US Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said on MSNBC after the tumultuous debate.

But the reaction from typical Americans will be far more crucial. Did they see strength or weakness Tuesday night from a very angry President Trump? Did Biden’s vision for health care and the economy resonate? 

So let’s sort through the mess, if we can.

Here are 10 things that should matter to North Carolinians in this ordeal, the first of three debates scheduled in this presidential election.

  1. ACA in peril. The debate began, of course, with the US Supreme Court vacancy. The president has nominated conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the role. On Tuesday, he declared the nomination the fitting result of the 2016 election. “We won the election,” he said. It did not take Biden long, of course, to draw a straight line between Barrett’s nomination and the Republican attempts to eradicate the Affordable Care Act, the nation’s benchmark healthcare law. As Biden pointed out, doing that could strip health insurance from 29.8 million Americans and more than 1 million North Carolinians. Many more would risk losing coverage for pre-existing conditions. If there is anything that comes of the Supreme Court and presidential debate, it is this—North Carolinians have something to lose here.  
  2. Trump’s dog-whistles. “Stand down, but stand by,” the president said to the white supremacist group known as Proud Boys. It might be one of the most shocking statements ever uttered by an American president, at least that we have on tape. This matters all over the country. As the president’s own FBI director acknowledged this year, white supremacy is a major threat to this country. But in the South, we are, to our lasting shame, deeply acquainted with white supremacy and its existential threat to our democracy. But even if the president could not reject American racism, the voters of America, particularly my fellow Southerners, might speak their condemnations loud and clear at the ballot box. 
  3. Trump’s failures. Former Vice President Biden started timidly, but the president’s interruptions only seemed to sharpen him, particularly as Biden criticized the president’s erratic handling of the coronavirus. “You are the worst president America has ever had,” Biden told the president once, in a moment that seemed to silence a belligerent Trump. 
  4. Healthcare fixes. “He has no plan for health care,” Biden said of Trump. “He has none. He doesn’t have a plan. The fact is: This man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” It will not be the most catalogued or dissected moment of the debate, but Biden did not waste his opportunities to bring the conversation back to health care whenever possible. Given the stakes, it makes sense. Biden’s plan emphasizes protecting the ACA and strengthening it, including the creation of a public option Americans can buy if they choose. At a time when the pandemic continues to surge in many states, Trump’s administration intends to argue in the US Supreme Court days after the election that the ACA should be scrapped. Asked again about his plans to protect health care, the president deflected. 
  5. COVID-19’s deadly rampage. Coronavirus has dominated this year and killed more than 200,000 Americans and more than 3,400 North Carolinians so far. Yet it only consumed a quarter of the debate. A full 30 minutes was spent discussing Trump’s distracting “law and order” narrative. But whatever you think about the questions asked Tuesday and the moderation by Fox News’ Chris Wallace (the Internet is not impressed), the virus has upended countless American lives and gutted the economy. A fitting summation of the contrast between the candidates? Trump acknowledged that he will wear masks on occasion, but mocked Biden for how often he wears a mask. Biden, pointing to the research from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said masks will save lives.
  6. Lost jobs under Trump. Biden seemed aware of what the public cares about in this moment. When they write the story about this election, they will likely say that all the recriminations and slurs and boasts did not matter as much as jobs and health care. As Biden noted Tuesday, the president will be the first to leave the office with fewer jobs than when he entered. Of course, coronavirus played a part in those job losses, but Biden insisted Tuesday that the economy cannot recover without a stronger effort to tamp down the coronavirus.  
  7. “He was not a loser.” Biden said this in the most emotional moment of the debate, referring to his late son, Beau Biden, a combat veteran of the Delaware Army National Guard. It took more than an hour of debate to get there, but eventually Biden dove into a report that Trump referred to veterans killed in combat as “losers.” There are an estimated 736,000 veterans in North Carolina, nearly 10% of the population. My father was one of them. What the president thinks about our veterans matters. It matters because we trust the president to make decisions that might put them in harm’s way, and whatever you think about Biden’s policies, it’s difficult to imagine a more striking contrast than Biden, the father of a decorated veteran, and Trump.  
  8. Respecting election results. If you have concerns about how President Trump would handle the outcome of an election in which he lost, you did not come away soothed, even if Biden attempted to assure the American public that Trump would have to leave if he lost. Trump insisted that the election, which is only 34 days away, would go on for months longer. He claimed widespread fraud in mail-in balloting, which is unsubstantiated. Trump called the election, which has yet to happen, “rigged.” It is clear, as clear as any moment in this muddled morass of a debate, that the president does not intend to respect the outcome of an election he does not win. 
  9. President for all, not some. “I’ll be a president not just for Democrats,” Biden said near the end of the evening. “I’ll be a president for Democrats and Republicans.” This is an important moment. This is key in North Carolina, a purple state with its consistent mix of progressives, conservatives, and moderates. Whoever wins the election is president of all of those North Carolinians, something leadership in this state has often failed to take into account. It will take years, if not decades, to heal the wounds of this election. Voters will be deciding who is best equipped to do that in the next four years.
  10. Better off without. Near the end of the evening, NBC News’ Brian Williams referred to “all the good people who had the benefit of missing this debate.” Surely Williams spoke for us all, but even if the debate was an exhausting affair, it cannot be overstated how crucial it is that Americans vote this year. For more information on how to vote and when, check out Cardinal & Pine’s ongoing voting rights project here.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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