Date September 30, 2020
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Political, economic, health scholars weigh in on first presidential debate

Faculty at Brown shared their takeaways on the first U.S. presidential debate, where the two candidates discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, the U.S. Supreme Court and voting by mail.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The first televised 2020 presidential election debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29, was unlike any the United States has seen before — rife with interruptions, false claims and ad hominem attacks that demonstrated an ever-deepening ideological divide between the two major American political parties.

The candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, argued bitterly over how best to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, whether mail-in voting would open the door to widespread election fraud, and how to confront systemic racism in the U.S., among other topics. 

Among the millions who tuned in to the debate Tuesday night were Brown University faculty — from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs to the Warren Alpert Medical School, the Department of Economics and more. We asked five Brown scholars to share their takeaways from the event — including what the candidates got right and wrong, how the events of the night could affect the outcome of the election and the pandemic, and what to watch for in the next debate on Oct. 15. 

Wendy J. Schiller

Professor of Political Science
Chair, Department of Political Science

Overall, the first presidential debate of 2020 proved to be like no other that had come before it. President Trump stuck to his pugnacious style in an attempt to dominate the tone and tenor of the interaction with Joe Biden. He succeeded, but at a potential cost in his standing with independent voters, especially suburban white women. 

In 2016, Trump won the majority of votes cast by white women — but in 2018, the Democrats took control of the House largely with the support of many of those same female voters. In 2020, it is unlikely that women are looking for more chaos while living under the pressures of the pandemic, a slowed economy, and children at home learning remotely.   Trump did nothing to dispel their fears that another Trump administration would calm the chaos. 

Biden performed better than expected, but it was far from a dynamic performance. He appealed to his base by lobbing insults at the president, sometimes directly to his face but more frequently to the camera. However, when it came time to talk about issues like health care, schooling, COVID-19 and the economy, he was coherent and cogent. His answer on race, using words like equity, equality, and decency, was just the kind of answer that Biden excels at because it plays to the individual qualities he possess that voters seem to like. It was his strongest answer of the night: quiet, calm and compelling.

In the next debate — if there is a next debate — expect Trump to spend as much time trying to tie Biden more tightly to the left wing of the Democratic Party, and to emphasize his economic record before COVID-19. In contrast, Biden will likely try to focus on attacking the president more forcefully on his taxes, his refusal to disavow white supremacy, and the possibility that Trump will try to alter the legitimate outcome of the presidential election. 


Elizabeth Goldberg

Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Services, Policy and Practice
Warren Alpert Medical School

The first presidential debate was an opportunity to discuss how America can emerge from the pandemic a nation united instead of divided. Unfortunately, little was shared from either of the candidates about how we can move forward and prevent the next 200,000 coronavirus deaths.

President Trump continues to either misunderstand or purposely distort the truth about the importance of universal masking and following regulations surrounding the conduct of vaccine safety trials. It is critically important that we build trust in the efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine if we want to have widespread uptake of immunization among the American people. We will only build trust if our scientists follow protocols to ensure vaccine safety is credibly established.

Neither candidate discussed another virus development issue that is of critical importance to older Americans. Earlier this week, a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine reviewed all COVID-19 treatment and vaccine trials currently registered in the country’s largest trial registry and found that older adults are likely to be excluded from more than half of COVID-19 clinical trials and 100% of vaccine trials. This is particularly worrisome because antibody responses to vaccines decrease with age, and many older adults live in congregate settings such as nursing homes, where vaccination is essential. We’re all in this together — if the vaccines are not effective in our older adults, we can expect continued transmission and deaths among all age groups.

The debate touched on other topics of concern surrounding older adults and health, particularly prescription drug prices, but some claims were inaccurate. President Trump claimed that insulin has become as affordable and as readily available as water. However, insulin still retails for roughly $300 per vial. One in three Medicare beneficiaries has diabetes, up from 18% in 2000 — and in 2018, more than one third of self-reported Medicare beneficiaries said cost impacted their decision to purchase insulin. Trump’s administration did introduce a new model to cap monthly out-of-pocket insulin costs, but it only applies to a subset of plans and enrollees, and not all participating health plans are required to cover insulin products. His administration’s model model also does not address the underlying list price increases for insulin. 

We can only hope that future debates will center on how the candidates will address rising health care costs for the average American, develop a national plan to distribute a safe and effective vaccine, and release messaging that unites Americans during a time when adverse mental health conditions have considerably increased.

This debate... generated heat, but no light.

Rich Arenberg Interim Director, Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy

Rich Arenberg

Interim Director, Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science

We have witnessed the most chaotic event in the modern history of presidential debates. At a time when even the peaceful transfer of power has been thrown into question and we are struggling to protect the integrity of the voting system itself, the utter lack of serious discussion of any issues and ideas is an embarrassment to us all. Children watching a presidential debate for the first time must be appalled. The lack of civility and decorum exhibited leaves one concerned about the next debate with its town hall forum format.

It's hard to find much positive in the takeaways from this debate. The president refused to reject white supremacy and to oppose any violence from his supporters. None of the announced issue areas were explored much beyond an exchange of schoolyard taunts. We are faced with a serious question of whether the Senate should be confirming a Supreme Court nominee for life at the very time that a national election is taking place. An alarming question looms about whether that election and its results will be trusted by most Americans and whether the president will accept the outcome. This debate did nothing to illuminate these issues. It generated heat, but no light.

Megan Ranney

Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Services, Policy and Practice
Director, Brown Institute for Translational Science


As of last night's debate, more than 7.1 million Americans are known to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and more than 200,000 have died from COVID-19. Health care workers and other essential workers across the country continue to lack access to adequate testing or personal protective equipment supplies. Only 50% of Americans regularly wear a mask in public, despite ample evidence that universal mask-wearing alone would essentially stop the spread of the virus and would allow our economy to quickly reopen. 

My deepest wish is for our country to develop a robust, consistent response to this pandemic. With strong universal messaging about mask-wearing; robust funding for and equitable distribution of PPE, vaccines, and testing; and high-quality collection and analysis of data on the virus's spread, it would be possible to reduce infections and reopen our economy. To date, we have achieved none of the above.

I was therefore dismayed — but not surprised — to hear President Trump continue to make fun of masks and claim that he has done a "phenomenal job" managing COVID-19 during the debate. I was enthused by Vice President Biden's support for funding and a strong plan; I only wish we had had a chance to hear more about his plan's details.

The one correct statement by President Trump regarding the virus was his allegation that we do not fully know the death counts in other countries, such as Russia and India. I would add that although we are relatively confident in our tracking of U.S. death rates, we do not fully know the extent of U.S. COVID-19 infection and transmission rates due to lack of testing and contact tracing. We also do not fully know who needs PPE. In the place of excellent governmental data collection and presentation, our country has had to rely on non-profit and academic substitutes for data collection. I wish that this issue had been further discussed during the debates. 

Moreover, other countries' successes or failures do not relieve us from our obligation to protect our own citizens.  As a co-founder of the national non-profit GetUsPPE, I know that we continue to lack millions upon millions of items of PPE across the country. Our schoolchildren, our nurses and our nursing home staff remain inadequately protected from the virus. To be eminently clear: Without production and equitable distribution of masks, gowns and other essential equipment, our country will continue to face unabated spread of the virus. I wish that everyone had the chance to wear "the biggest mask," as Trump said about Biden.

Finally, as a public health professional and practicing emergency physician, I unequivocally believe the integrity and scientific rigor of our government's scientists. I appreciated the short mention of "muzzling" of public health scientists during the debate. I hope that all of us listening will take on the charge to speak up for what is ethical and true.


Gauti Eggertsson

Professor of Economics

As an economist, I was naturally looking for any hints at details of the candidates' economic policies in last night's debate. Those hints were hard to find. The debate degenerated quickly enough into heckling and trading of insults. Anyone watching hoping to learn more about the candidates' policy ideas came away disappointed.

Absent, for example, was any discussion of trade policy. The closest we came was the moment when Vice President Biden suggested that with President Trump's trade policy — which was supposedly geared toward reducing trade deficits — instead increased the U.S. trade deficit with China. (Whether reducing trade deficits is a good policy goal is another subject entirely.) Trump could have responded that the annual trade deficit with China is actually, according to my reading, roughly about the same as it was when he took office. Biden, in turn, could have pointed out that the overall U.S. trade deficit relative to the rest of the world has increased. Rather than engage in a substantive debate, Trump responded: "China ate your lunch, Joe!" That seems like a representative example of the nature of the debate.

I was also looking for some discussion of tax policy, in light of the recent New York Times exposé revealing that the president paid just $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017. Again, I was disappointed. Trump suggested he had only taken advantage of the tax system that legislators like Biden had put in place, and as an aside claimed he has paid "millions and millions" in taxes. (Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump has not released his tax records to substantiate this claim.) Biden, in turn, pointed out that in his four years in office, Trump has cut taxes aggressively on those with the highest incomes and has increased the loopholes on which the very wealthy rely — loopholes Biden said he hopes to shut down.

I had been hoping to see a substantive debate about tax policy, its possible role in shaping income inequality and other issues. After this debate, I am not optimistic about hearing anything intelligent or substantive, on this or any other subjects, in future debates.