The Morning Brief – 09.29.20

By Bruce Carson


And now for something completely different—U.S. Presidential Debate

Debate topics—possible issues and questions

Importance for Canada

Tonight starting at 9pm ET, a political debate will take place in Cleveland, Ohio which could have profound effects on the Canada-U.S. relationship. This is the first of three presidential debates, the second on October 15 in Miami and the third on October 22 in Nashville.

There is only one vice presidential debate which will take place on October 7, in Salt Lake City, Utah. The debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Harris may be the most interesting and dynamic of them all.

All of the debates run for 90 minutes, uninterrupted by commercials on television. The one tonight is divided into six segments with each participant, Vice President Biden and President Trump having two minutes to respond to the question and then there is to be open debate.

Similar to federal election debates here, the candidates know the general topics but don’t know the questions that will put in the debate by the moderator, Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday anchor. He is described as no friend of either candidate. He has interviewed Trump a number of times, but Biden has declined his requests for an interview.

Wallace has been described as a dogged interviewer and will certainly have to maintain that dogged determination if he is going to keep the candidates on topic, or even close to the topic. Wallace has said that debates should seriously help “millions of people decide who we’re going to elect.”

The six debate topics are selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, established in 1987.  They are: Trump and Biden records; Supreme Court of the United States; Coronavirus pandemic; race relations and violence in cities; election integrity; and the economy.

Dealing with the topics in order: Trump-Biden records could see questions that deal with each candidate’s triumphs and failures but may now deal with the New York Times revelations with regard to Trump’s tax returns. Alternatively it could come up in the last segment on the economy. Trump will no doubt stress his accomplishments on the economy while Biden should talk about health care and foreign affairs, while at the same time attacking each other’s records. On COVID-19 Trump should be vulnerable and Biden will be tied by Trump to all of the Obama initiatives that Trump opposes from the Paris Accord to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Supreme Court will probably be one of the most contentious segments with arguments moving from why appoint a justice now within weeks of the presidential election to the conservative views of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Trump’s concern is that he wants the Supreme Court’s ideological right in a position to support arguments that may be advanced after the election dealing with voter fraud. From what one can determine, he would like the election to be decided by the Court. Biden should be concerned with a Court which has moved to the ideological right dealing with matters such as abortion, health care, gun control and electoral reform. Biden might describe the Democrats plan which could see the Court expanded.

The handling of the coronavirus pandemic should be a winning topic for Biden as he has Bob Woodward’s book for support, but he will have to be ready for Trump’s defence that if he hadn’t closed the U.S. borders when he did, over two million Americans would have died. This topic also gives Trump an opportunity to criticise China and repeat his claim that Biden has close ties with China and China being in the World Trade Organization can be laid at the feet of the Obama administration. Most recently, controversy swirls around possible interference by the White House in the vaccine approval process, so Trump can announce a safe and effective vaccine for public use before voting day.

On the subject of race protests and violence in cities, we know from his many public statements that Trump blames weak Democratic city leadership for not keeping cities safe and refusing to ask for the National Guard to be sent in. Rex Murphy in a recent article sets out that the continuing violence in the cities and ensuing debates threaten American Democracy. This topic should provide Biden with an opportunity to talk about the deterioration of race relations in the time of Trump. Trump has been able to talk about violence and blame others, as if all of this was not taking place while he is president. Gun control could also be discussed during this segment.

Election integrity is linked to mail in ballots which are linked to Trump’s arguments about the lack of integrity of the election process. It is Trump’s contention that mail in ballots will be a source of election fraud and he has done what he can, on the basis of scant evidence, to discredit the process. Biden will have to shore up his argument supporting the integrity of the process marshalling arguments that it is a tried, safe, secure and accurate method of voting. He will argue that only Trump’s fear of losing is at the root of his complaints. Respecting the outcome of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another could also be a subject for discussion. Biden should be able to argue that the acceptance of the results and peaceful transfer of power has to take place in the normal fashion to demonstrate to the world that American democratic values have not changed.

Finally on the economy, before COVID-19 this topic would have been a slam dunk for Trump. Even so, Trump will argue that the economy has turned a corner and will come back in Q3 and Q4 and particularly next year, stronger than ever. Biden will need statistics at his fingertips so he can argue that the economic recovery that Trump takes credit for actually started under Obama. He also needs numbers to refute arguments that the economy and jobs have fully recovered. This is an area where fact based arguments are vital.

For Canada, the debate is important, in the event it is mentioned by either candidate or attacked, so arguments can be rebutted at an appropriate time. Canada’s relationship with the United States is one of the three most important matters the prime minister must be consistently aware of and continually be ready to address. The other two matters are national unity and Canada’s economy.

The candidate’s views differ on such matters as fossil fuel development and climate change with Trump acting favourably towards Canada’s energy sector. Trump has proven to be erratic on matters of trade but Biden will be supporting his “Buy America” arguments.

Trump has also been critical of NATO which is a foundational part of Canada’s defence strategy. Canada is dependent on the U.S. for its defence and security, so Canada should be aware of U.S. nuances of policy in this sector as we move in an increasingly dangerous world.

There will be few undecided voters at this stage of the campaign, with the result resting with a few swing states; nevertheless the debate tonight and those which follow are important in clarifying issues and testing the mettle of both candidates.

To Come

  • The Parliamentary Budget Officer will release his “Economic and Fiscal Outlook”
September 30
  • GDP numbers for July to be released
October 6
  • International trade numbers for August to be released
October 8
  • Bank of Canada Governor Macklem delivers a speech
October 9
  • Job numbers for September to be released