Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Welcome to the FT’s first ever US presidential debate “watch-along” with our two Swamp Notes columnists, Ed Luce in Washington and Rana Foroohar in New York, and me, your virtual innkeeper.

We’ll be providing real-time commentary and analysis of the Trump-Biden fireworks in Cleveland, Ohio, from the safety of our socially-distant laptops in the hopes of giving FT readers a bit of added insight gleaned from years of reporting and writing about US politics.

There are, of course, limits to real-time commentary. The history of presidential debates are rife with examples of showdowns where the meaning was not clear until days or weeks later. Famously, Richard Nixon was deemed the “winner” of the first televised debate in 1960, only to learn much later that John Kennedy’s image of youth and vigour was more important with voters who watched the exchange.

Similarly, in 1976 — the first time general election debates were reintroduced after those Nixon-Kennedy duels — incumbent Gerald Ford ended up in hot water after claiming there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”. But that gaffe was largely overlooked on the night. As Rick Perlstein notes in his new history of the era, early polls had Ford beating Jimmy Carter by a wide margin, and Dick Cheney, who was managing Ford’s re-election campaign, had scored the president the big winner. But the flub eventually helped solidify the image of Ford not quite being up to the job.

Which is all to say that we may miss something. We may over-interpret. We may declare a turning point where there is none. But that is all part of creating what the late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham called “the first rough draft of history”. In this deadly serious political season, we are also hoping to inject a bit of fun back into election-watching. For good or for ill, modern politics includes a bit of show business — Hollywood for ugly people, in the famous expression — and perhaps no set piece on the US electoral calendar encapsulates that more than presidential debates.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

This is how I’ve been preparing for tonight’s event: re-watching old Saturday Night Live parodies of previous presidential debates. Here are my top five:

— Chevy Chase as Jerry Ford —

He did nothing to try to look like the president, but Chase’s depiction of Ford did as much to solidify the incumbent’s image as a slightly dim jock (Ford played football at the University of Michigan) than Ford’s own miscues (see above). My favourite is when Chase-as-Ford is asked a complicated question about unemployment from Jane Curtain, to which he responds: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

— Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz reprise Bush-Dukakis —

Much has been written about Carvey’s depiction of George HW Bush, an impression that Bush himself eventually warmed to. What I had forgotten was how funny Lovitz was as Dukakis. The whole debate (featuring Tom Hanks as the late ABC News presenter Peter Jennings) is hysterical, but my favourite moment is when Lovitz-as-Dukakis is asked to respond to a fumbling Carvey-as-Bush word salad: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

— Darrell Hammond as Al Gore —

Much like Carvey’s take on Bush, this parody is mostly remembered as one of Will Ferrell’s first outings as Bush the Younger (remember “strategery”? This is where it was coined). But Hammond’s eye-rolling, deep-sighing Gore is brutal, particularly for his repeated and overly-earnest invocation of “lockbox”, one of Gore’s central deficit-reduction policies. It helped doom Gore.

— Dana Carvey as Ross Perot —

The amazing thing here is that Carvey plays both Perot and Bush père thanks to a bit of pre-taping, with the late Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton. For me, the most memorable moment is at the very end when Carvey-as-Bush and Hartman-as-Clinton look over at Perot, and you see what’s on their minds: one of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.

— Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump —

The only reason I don’t rank this one higher is that Baldwin was funnier as Trump in other, later bits. Still, this debate sketch with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton is Baldwin’s debut. There’s no single moment that stands out in Baldwin’s bravura performance here, though given recent revelations about Trump’s taxes, the exchange where McKinnon-as-Clinton accuses Baldwin-as-Trump of “never paying taxes in his life” reverberates four years later. Baldwin’s response? McKinnon is getting “warmer”.

We’ll have to save Tina Fey’s depiction of Sarah Palin for next week’s vice-presidential debate. Enjoy!

Edward Luce, US National Editor

The thing to remember about tonight’s debate is that Donald Trump’s back is to the wall. I don’t mean the polls, which are nevertheless looking ominous. I mean his taxes. The New York Times tax scoop may not sway many swing voters -- to the extent that endangered species of American is even paying attention. But it does increase the likelihood that Cyrus Vance, the New York District Attorney, will bring a criminal prosecution for tax fraud.

As we learned from last year's Special Counsel investigation, being president gives Mr Trump personal immunity and shields him from his lenders, to whom he owes roughly $300m in the next four years, according to the New York Times report. So his incentive to stay in office is pretty much existential. I don’t believe this has been true of any other president in US history. All of which means he's likely to play even dirtier than normal in tonight’s debate, which is saying something.

To be sure, the NYT tax story has given Joe Biden some easy attack lines (how many essential workers are paying more in federal taxes than the president’s $750 tax bill in his first year as president?). But it will also boost Trump’s instinct to go for the jugular, the shins, and other tender spots within reach. Expect Trump to call on Hunter Biden to release his returns. Expect him also to echo Fox News’ reference to “the Biden crime family”.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

I spent much of last week on a 13-hour road trip from NYC to Chicago in order to drop my daughter at college and much of that time was spent driving through Pennsylvania, which has arguably become the single most important swing state in the nation.

Pennsylvania is, as Southern liberal politico James Carville once put it, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. In between those two places, there are hundreds of miles of farmland and plenty of people who voted for Trump last time around. He’s done nothing for them, of course. The broadband is still spotty, the highway potholes rife and the debt mounting.

Unfortunately, state politics during the pandemic reflect the national divide. As one source in state government put it to me, “when anyone tries to slow down and plan out a thoughtful re-opening, they get lambasted as being too liberal. When anyone makes the point that we need to avoid total economic collapse, they are labeled crazy conservatives. It’s just all finger pointing. And if we don’t get federal help after November, it will be all-out war.”

Which brings me to the key point that Biden must hammer home in tonight's debate: it’s all about the president’s mishandling of the pandemic, which has claimed 200,000 American lives. In some ways, little else right now matters. But in other ways the Trump Covid debacle is just illustrative of the fact that he’s not a leader, he’s a paranoid narcissist. He isn’t capable of respecting or caring for others — that’s the DSM definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

Biden, on the other hand, is nothing if not empathetic and respectful. My one worry about the debates is that Biden’s inherent dignity will make it difficult for him to handle Trump, who is like the guy in oncoming traffic who wins a war over who will swerve by pulling off his steering wheel. I think the way forward is to treat Trump like the toddler he is, speak slowly and make him sputter (Elizabeth Warren’s quip, “Donald, it’s time to put on your big boy pants” comes to mind), and double down on empathy when addressing the audience. My fingers are crossed that the people in Pennsylvania and the other swing states won’t fall for a con man twice.

Tonight’s debate is taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, a state that Trump won by 8 points in 2020. Pundits subsequently concluded that the state had turned solidly Republican, but polls show Biden with a small lead this time round. Here’s a story from Demetri Sevastopulo, our Washington Bureau Chief, on how Trump is trying to retain his edge with white working class voters in Ohio and other battleground states in the rust-belt and Midwest.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Ed notes that the Trump campaign is telegraphing the fact the president intends to go after Biden’s son, Hunter, for his work on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice-president. But do they really think this attack line is going to work? It’s not like it’s new; Trump attacked Biden repeatedly over Hunter’s business ties months ago...and then dropped it when it became clear it wasn’t helping him in the polls.

Also, raising questionable family business dealings is not necessarily something that plays in Trump’s favour right now, particularly after the New York Times exposé Ed refers to. That investigation shows that Trump’s daughter Ivanka was paid “consulting fees” by the Trump Organization that the NYT says appear to be something of a tax dodge.

Scenes from the trail

— Ready to roll —
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport this afternoon ahead of the first presidential debate.

— Your friendly neighbourhood Biden-Man —
Democratic presidential nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden gives a thumbs-up to a neighbour (right) from the private house he is staying at while in Cleveland in the lead-up to the first presidential debate.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Most people think this election is now Biden’s to lose, which means these debates are the last thing he wants. Frontrunners have an incentive to avoid any kind of encounter that would help the underdog, especially one-to-one debates.
As I wrote last week, Biden’s goal must be to ensure he does not become the story. That means he has to speak clearly and concisely - not a high bar. Right now the election is a referendum on Trump. Biden will want to keep it that way.

Biden’s focus should therefore be on coronavirus and healthcare, which are pretty much the same thing right now. The more Biden can keep the discussion on Trump’s pandemic record the better for him. He should also talk about how Americans can vote in a pandemic whether it be by mail or in person.

If there is one issue that I expect to get the headlines it is Trump’s refusal to agree in advance to a peaceful transfer of power. Among the six topics that the moderator, Chris Wallace has listed, are “integrity and elections”. If Trump once again chooses to keep us guessing, nothing else will matter. It goes without saying that Biden should unflinchingly pledge to abide by the result of “a free and fair election”.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

You’re right, Ed, that Biden should focus on healthcare. It’s looking likely that the Supreme Court will strike down the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), given that conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett – Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee -- may well be confirmed by the Senate. Biden isn’t particularly progressive on healthcare (he’s not for Medicare for All, for example). But simply supporting the Affordable Care Act, which he does, opens him up to the usual Trumpian attacks about being a “socialist.”

I’ll save my thoughts on ACB and the Republican Senate for later, but a good way for Biden to shift the terms of the healthcare debate – aside from reminding everyone that if the ACA is invalidated the number of uninsured people in America would rise by about 20m in the midst of a pandemic – is to talk about how terrible the current system is not just for individuals but for business.

Employer-funded healthcare in the US is an accidental system. It came into being during the second world war, when wage freezes and 1.9 per cent unemployment forced the government to allow companies to offer fringe benefits like healthcare in an attempt to attract workers. In 1943, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that employer-based healthcare should be tax free — and we were off to the races. The percentage of the population in the US covered by employer-led plans rose from 9 per cent in the 1940s, to around two-thirds today. Yet tax advantages do not offset the fact that healthcare benefits are now the second or third-highest compensation costs for American employers.

That hurts workers — basic economics tells us that as healthcare prices go up, wages will go down — but it also hurts American companies compared to overseas competitors that don’t have to be in the healthcare business, and the US economy as a whole.

“Socialised” medicine may still be an ideological leap too far for Americans. But perhaps if Biden can start talking about it as a way to take the pressure off businesses struggling to survive in a pandemic, it might become a less divisive issue.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Until now Biden has been largely reticent about Amy Coney Barrett. Since the Supreme Court is the second of Wallace’s topics, he will almost certainly have to talk about her tonight. You should watch out for two issues. The first is Biden’s Catholicism. Many Democrats have been openly hostile to Barrett’s faith - and especially her membership of the cult-sounding People of Praise.

Biden will certainly not want to question Barrett’s faith. But Trump has already questioned Biden’s religious credentials and even called him “anti-God’. It will be intriguing to see whether Biden responds to that. Viewers should not overlook the irony of the fact that the decidedly un-pious Trump has the backing organised Christian groups while the church-going Biden is depicted as leading the godless hordes. Biden will be sorely tempted to correct it.

The second is Biden’s record as a former Senate judiciary chair. Judicial hearings is a field in which Biden has as much experience as anybody in US politics. When he dropped out of his first presidential bid in 1987, he claimed it was to oversee the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork (in reality his campaign had imploded). Bork’s nomination was defeated for many reasons, not least his publicly-stated ambition to undo the civil rights rulings of the Warren court.

The fall of Bork at Biden’s hands was a watershed moment in US politics. Some would even date the start of the judicial right’s counter-revolution to then. Will Biden be able to hold his tongue? I have no doubt he will be advised to stick to the script that the Barrett hearings should only take place after the American people have spoken. But Biden has so much more he could say.

Biden ran as a moderate during the Democratic primary, but he has since laid out a much more progressive economic platform that absorbs much of the spirit and some of the ideas put forward by rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who challenged him for the nomination. Here’s a deep dive from James Politi, our World Trade Editor, on the people and policies shaping Bidenomics.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

As my colleague James Politi mentioned in the introduction of his piece on Biden’s economic plans today, the Democratic candidate has said he, “doesn’t want to punish anybody, but instead of just rewarding wealth in this country, it’s about time we start to reward work.”

That’s a subtle but savvy phrasing of the problem, which avoids the typical progressive problem of supporting “workers” over “business,” but rather alludes to the fact that the free market system itself isn’t working properly, because the incentives are wrong.

We have a tax code that encourages debt – which is why the President has been able to live in luxury while paying only $750 in tax – rather than incentivising Main Street investment. We have an upside down market in which bad news (like the Great Depression style 2Q GDP figures) create “good” stock price news because they ensure lower interest rates which grows the corporate debt bubble and share prices, masking real world problems.

If the President trots out public debt as an issue (I doubt he’ll push forward much policy substance but you never know), Biden should counter with the record amount of private debt out there, of which the President himself is the leading indicator. He’s the biggest zombie of all.

Pretty much every economic study has found that Biden would create more job growth than Trump, and Moody’s has said that the economic outlook would be strongest if Democrats sweep Washington. But rather than focus on numbers, I think Biden is right to keep hammering the message of rewarding “work, not wealth.” As the Trump tax news has proven, outside of the White House, the President has neither.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Ed raises the issue of Biden's Catholicism. Isn't it odd that Biden would only be the second Catholic US president if he wins? Kennedy was the first (and so far the only). Working-class Catholics remain a key swing vote in the big industrial states of the Midwest. Many of the "Reagan Democrats" continue to support Trump and the Republicans on cultural issues like abortion. But there's a strong social justice strain in Catholicism that has kept them up for grabs for Democrats in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Getting back to our conversation about Coney Barrett, I'm slightly surprised that neither candidate has made a big deal about this on the campaign trail leading up to tonight.

That makes me think neither know exactly how this plays. Obviously it rallies the Trump base, but her strong anti-abortion positions could really peel off moderate Republican women in suburban areas of important swing states like in Montgomery County, outside of Philly, in Pennsylvania.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Agree with Rana. Trump will almost certainly make a big deal out of Barrett by alleging that Biden has attacked her faith, which he hasn't. Indeed very few elected Democrats, as opposed to Twitter liberals, have questioned her beliefs. This will be the moment where Biden will be tempted to contrast his own faith with Trump's alleged Christianity. See this

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Correspondent

Peter, your point about how Trump's bullying plays in Peoria is very important.

One of the reasons he played well against Hillary is that some in the Rust Belt viewed him as a rough "outsider" calling out hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.

That was always a con. I think the farmers and coal miners he did nothing for won't be fooled again.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

A little background on this tactic. Trump is taking on Biden's school rank. It may seem petty (and it is petty), but in his early days in the Senate Biden had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this. He felt the bigwigs in Washington viewed him as a bit more of a showhorse than a workhorse, that they were all Ivy League elites who didn't give him much regard. He eventually became a legislator of substance, but the attack may still sting.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

The dilemma for Biden when Trump makes such personal attacks ('you came bottom of your class', 'don't ever use the word smart with me' etc) is whether to respond in kind ('you inherited $400m from your daddy' etc) or to rise above it.
The former gets down in the mud, where Trump thrives. The latter looks weak. There's no obvious right way to handle him.

As Philippe Reines, Hillary Clinton's debate prepper, put it; "Trump is a terrible debater and terribly hard to debate.'

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Asked about the economy, Trump is pivoting back to his familiar argument about the need to reopen the country quickly. Again, I know it's a rote Trump line, but I'm not sure it's been working. All recent polls (including the FT-Peterson poll) shows that people are still afraid about the impact of the outbreak and are in favour of prioritising social distancing over reopening. The line hasn't worked for Trump in the past....I'm not sure why it would work now.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Trump has just said something breathtaking: He claims to have paid "millions of dollars" in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017 not the $750 each year that the New York Times reported.

We've been wondering what Trump's considered answer would be. The old one was: "Because I'm smart." In other words, only stupid people pay high taxes.

Clearly he's decided simply to lie on this one. I'm a little surprised Biden failed to press him on that. He needs to keep repeating: "So release your tax returns".

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Trump's effort to goad Biden by talking over him and interrupting him may be an effective bullying tactic, but it's also a sign of desperation, I think.

He wouldn't need to resort to these kinds of tactics if he were firmly in control of the race. He's acting like a candidate who is significantly behind in the polls and needs to orchestrate some kind of Hail Mary to get him back into the race.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

We're now on race issues, but to get back to Ed's point on the Obama recovery, you're right that it was relatively weak, especially when it comes to working-class wages. But the point I was trying to make (perhaps inarticulately) was that he inherited an economy that was severely damaged by the 2007 financial crisis...a crisis that has left scars on the economy that are still there.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Peter, you're right about median income etc, but in fact the deeper a recession the faster the growth coming out of it, so the Obama record was even weaker than it looks. (we are going to see dramatic Q3 positive growth numbers in the US, which will mean nothing except that negative Q2 growth was a disaster). The point is that Obama's growth would have been non-existent without his 2009 stimulus which all but three Republicans opposed.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Much like his attacks on Hunter Biden, Trump's "law and order" rhetoric was rolled out several weeks ago ... and then rolled back.

Was it because it wasn't working? He's going there again with quite a bit of anger in his tone. I know a lot of Democrats are worried about how this will play in swing districts, but it hasn't closed the polls much up until now.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

This discussion on race and law and order is yet another attempt by Trump to paint Biden as part of the radical left. Clearly these issues are a vulnerability to Democrats among suburban moderates and working-class women.

But people know Biden. He's been around for a long time. I'm not sure Trump can effectively paint Biden as an out-and-out lefty. He's certainly trying, though.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

This is a good line of questioning by Chris Wallace that Biden is struggling to answer about why he hasn't called out individual Democratic political leaders to end the handful of violent protests.

Trump should just let Biden speak, since he's having a hard time answering it. We were headed straight into Biden word salad and Trump effectively cut him off.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Just like his questioning of Biden, Chris Wallace's questioning of Trump on his failure to call out white supremacists was also very effective.

Trump didn't have a good answer, and Biden effectively goaded him to use the debate as an opportunity to condemn groups like the Proud Boys. Which he appeared like he was about to do ... but then made a left turn to condemn Antifa instead.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Trump's relentless attacks on Hunter Biden is almost unbearable to hear, though some of it is accurate.

I think Biden is right to avoid retaliating in kind, although the shamelessness with which Trump's children are profiting from his presidency matches the way Trump himself profited from his father, Fred Snr.

But it's a horribly toxic debate. And there is no obviously effective way to handle Trump.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Correspondent

That's right. The only consistently effective debate tactic for Biden has been to just turn away from Trump and speak directly to the audience, calling them "you," making people understand that it really is about them. That is what actually makes Trump stop talking for a few minutes. I think it confuses him because it's about empathy.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

The only way Biden can defend Hunter Biden is how he did it: like many American families, I have a son who's a bit of a ne'er-do-well.

But even though he's right that there's never been any wrongdoing proven by Hunter at the Ukrainian energy company he worked for, it smells bad. Hunter shouldn't have worked there, and Biden shouldn't have allowed it while he was vice-president.

But as you note, Ed, it's not like the Trump family is a model of functionality. It looked like Biden was about to go down that route, but he pulled back at the last minute.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

There are no better answers to this question about electoral legitimacy than the one Biden has: count all the votes.

Any other answer suggests that the voice of the average voter shouldn't be heard. Trump immediately tried to change the topic by going back to the investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 election. I'm not sure any non-specialist would understand what Trump is on about.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

The other problem about Trump's critiques of postal voting (other than the fact that the allegations about manipulation and fraud are mostly not true) is that it could suppress voters he needs in states like Florida and Arizona, where there are very high percentage of older voters who are afraid to go vote in person.

Older voters tend to vote for Trump, and if they're afraid to turn out in person ... and Trump convinces them postal voting is fraudulent ... well, that's a self-inflicted wound.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

That was the most toxic debate I've ever seen, and there have been many. I have two conclusions.

First, Biden was wobbly at the start not least because Trump was doggedly interrupting and goading him every time he tried to speak.

To some extent it worked. But Biden managed to steady himself with some help from Chris Wallace whom Trump interrupted almost as often (a tactical mistake in my view). By the end Biden was calmly delivering his talking points and in control of his syntax, which was the bar he needed to clear.

My other takeaway is that Trump is clearly very rattled. The NYT tax story is huge, his poll deficit shows no signs of narrowing having been pretty stable for almost six months, and there are only 35 days to go.

The most important line of the debate was one that Trump never uttered: "I will abide by the results of the election even if I lose".

If you turned on this debate hoping to be reassured about the immediate future of US democracy, you will have to await the second debate, or the third, or perhaps the election itself. Trump is not going to concede power unless he is forced to.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I am intrigued by Rana's suggestion. I think most people who watched that debate would agree that Trump doesn't want to "debate" or engage on the issues and that Biden would be entirely justified in saying; "you had your chance, I took your abuse, now go back to Twitter where you belong".

As the frontrunner, Biden doesn't need any more debates. As for Peter's question, I wish I could disagree with you. I have lost count of the number of occasions that I've thought Trump has gone too far only to be proven wrong. But that's a measure of the loyalty of his base.

I think the American middle, to the extent it still exists, and the "exhausted majority", would breath a sigh of relief on hearing there would be no more "debates".

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I'm trying to think through constituencies Trump needs to win back: working-class women in the big industrial states, moderate Republicans in suburbs of St. Pete and Phoenix, independents who hold their nose but support Trump because they think he can manage the economy ... this doesn't help him with any of those, does it?

So I'm going to agree with you, Ed. But gingerly.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

One modest prediction, no matter what you think of Mike Pence, he will be relatively civil to Kamala Harris, in their debate next month and vice versa. They may even get into some of the issues.

I never thought I'd look forward to a vice-presidential debate more than the next presidential one but that time has arrived. That spectacle left me feeling diminished and demoralised. We should all take a shower.

Get alerts on US presidential election 2020 when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this live-blog