Political, environmental, race scholars share presidential debate takeaways

Faculty at Brown shared their thoughts on the final televised presidential debate before the 2020 election, where the two major candidates sparred over COVID-19, climate change and racial justice.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met for the second and final time to discuss their plans to address the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, racial justice and more.

Though the night featured fewer interruptions and ad hominem attacks than the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, the contrast between the two candidates was no less jarring. From a debate stage in Nashville, the pair gave polar opposite perspectives on, and prescriptions for, everything from tackling climate change to reviving the economy to handling immigration. While Trump insisted the pandemic was "going away" and caseloads were decreasing, Biden cautioned that the country was headed for a "dark winter" if its public health priorities didn't change.

Six scholars at Brown — including those with expertise in public health, the environment, politics and racial justice —  shared their takeaways from the event. Here, they weigh in on what the candidates got right and wrong, and they assess how the debate could affect the outcome of the election and the future of the country.

Richard ArenbergRichard 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

The final presidential debate was a marked improvement over the first debate, although that was an easy standard to exceed. The president remained under control, did not interrupt his opponent and even squeezed out a compliment for the night’s moderator, Kristen Welker, whom he had criticized bitterly earlier in the day.

Although the instant CNN poll indicated a substantial Biden win among viewers, 53% to 39%, I thought this was not Biden’s best performance. His answers and parries lacked crispness, and his body language seemed downcast. Biden even made the classic debate error of glancing at his watch as if he wanted to be off the stage.

That said, the best way to judge a presidential debate is to measure each of the candidates by how their performance measured up against their objectives for the night.

Donald Trump entered the debate with his campaign hemorrhaging. He clearly trails in the national polls. The Real Clear Politics average showed an 8 percentage point advantage for Biden and a slightly smaller lead in polls of most all of the battleground states key to an Electoral College victory. His objective for the night had to be to do something to dramatically change this dynamic. While his performance may have firmed up some of his soft support, nothing about the debate suggested that it would have a large impact on the trajectory of the election.

For Biden, the objective was simple: do no harm. He successfully crossed that low bar.

With about 50 million votes already cast and 10 days left, absent a major unexpected event, the direction of this election — which has been stable for months, probably the most stable election in recent history — seems clear. The president’s campaign for re-election is in serious trouble.

A crucial remaining question is whether, given all that has been said about the legitimacy of the mail-in vote process and foreign interference in our election, the American people will have confidence in the outcome, and whether the transfer of power, if it comes, will be peaceful. The peaceful transfer of power is the gold standard of democracy and has been since George Washington. For perhaps the first time, it cannot be taken for granted. 

Ronald AubertRonald Aubert

Visiting Professor of the Practice, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and School of Public Health

It does not appear that President Trump is aware that several states in the U.S. are experiencing a surge in new cases of coronavirus infections. He cited downturns in Texas, Florida and Arizona, but those decreases all occurred during July and August. And he did not mention the surge in cases in Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and several other states, which is resulting in 60,000 new cases per day across the country, approaching the peak of what was observed over the summer. He continues to insist that the country has ”turned the corner” and a vaccine will be available in a timeframe that is not consistent with expert opinion. And he still cannot articulate a national strategy for dealing with the pandemic. 

Former Vice President Biden acknowledged the importance of consistently wearing masks as a prudent public health measure and of developing a national strategy for reopening schools. He also suggested investing in rapid testing. These priorities are consistent with current expert recommendations and scientific evidence. It appears to me that Biden, were he to become president, would embrace the scientific evidence and would allow the institutions that are most qualified to fight this pandemic to take the lead. Doing so could yield the types of results we see in countries like Australia and South Korea, where leaders have kept caseloads low by responding to surges with decisive and science-driven actions.

I found Biden’s response to the question regarding African American parents fearful of their children’s potential interactions with law enforcement to be empathetic. He acknowledged institutional racism and lack of inclusion in participation in economic and educational opportunities in this country. It was not clear to me that President Trump understood the question, or else he chose not to answer it.

Juliet HookerJuliet Hooker

Professor of Political Science

During the second 2020 presidential debate, moderator Kristen Welker asked excellent questions about race, including on immigration and child separation policies at the border, on environmental racism, and on how the candidates would address black families dealing with the ongoing terror of police violence.

Donald Trump’s responses were true to form. While implausibly asserting that he was “the least racist person in the room” and that he had done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, he continued to falsely claim that many Latinx immigrants are “rapists” and “murderers” and that only those with low IQs show up for their immigration hearings once in the U.S. He also continued to demonize Black Lives Matter protesters, and in general said nothing to disavow his support for white supremacist groups and the politics of racial grievance that has characterized his political rhetoric. 

Joe Biden, meanwhile, did a better job of addressing the fears that Black families confront about police violence. He repudiated his previous support for the 1994 crime bill and outlined policies aimed at moving drug offenses outside the criminal justice system, which would be an important step forward in reversing mass incarceration. 

Overall, however, the debate was a missed opportunity to forcefully and directly confront the racial justice uprisings that have swept across the country since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which have once again placed profound questions about the endurance of white supremacy at the forefront of national conversations. I would have liked to see a more expansive discussion of what the U.S. can do to become a more racially just society, one that promotes the lives of Black and brown communities.

Myles LennonMyles Lennon

Assistant Professor of Environment and Society and Anthropology

Tonight's debate highlighted notable differences in the candidates' climate and environmental policies — but also an important (and unfortunate) similarity. 

Joe Biden laid out ambitious plans to address climate change and create millions of green jobs through investments in building retrofits, electric vehicle charging stations and renewable energy. President Trump, inversely, laid out nothing resembling a coherent climate or green jobs strategy. He took credit for the country's drop in carbon emissions, a reality that cannot credibly be linked to any of his administration's policies, suggesting that his administration's actions to dismantle and weaken environmental regulations created economic opportunity without harming the environment.

But despite this significant contrast in policy specifics and commitments, both candidates expressed their support for fracking — a fossil fuel industry with a carbon emissions profile that does not align with any scientifically grounded plan to realistically mitigate climate change. While Biden tried to address the negative environmental impacts of fracking by endorsing carbon capture technologies and characterizing natural gas as a "transition" fuel (from dirtier fossil fuels to renewables), such ideas are no less at odds with science than Trump's more robust embrace of petroleum industries. 

Perhaps the high point and biggest surprise of the debate's climate section was moderator Kristen Welker's question on the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to oil refineries and polluting infrastructures. I would wager that this question was the first in any presidential debate related to environmental justice — a promising development in an otherwise tepid climate policy landscape in which neither presidential candidate wholeheartedly repudiates all fossil fuels.

Megan RanneyMegan Ranney

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE AND HEALTH SERVICES, POLICY AND PRACTICE
DIRECTOR, BROWN-LIFESPAN CENTER FOR DIGITAL HEALTH
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, BROWN INSTITUTE FOR TRANSLATIONAL SCIENCE

Last night's debate highlighted, once again, that our election comes down to a decision between a willingness to rely on facts and a desire to sustain magical thinking regarding COVID-19. 

Multiple times during the debate, President Trump made misleading or outright false claims about the COVID-19 pandemic. Most dramatically, he claimed (not for the first time) that we are "rounding the corner" and that "it's going away." As an emergency physician and public health researcher, I know how utterly untrue this statement is: Nationally, we've seen a more than 30% increase in hospitalizations and an almost 100% increase in diagnosed cases over the last month. In Rhode Island, we've seen a 90% increase in diagnoses and a 30% increase in hospitalizations in the last two weeks. When the president makes these statements, it stops our country and our government from taking this disease seriously, and stops us from developing effective plans to mitigate the surge.

I, for one, left the debate more convinced than ever that President Trump either does not understand, or does not care about, the scientific reality of this virus. In counterpoint, Vice President Biden's answers were clearly rooted in science. 

We have a stark choice, as a country, about which path we want to take in our approach to public health and medical care going forward.

Wendy SchillerWendy Schiller

PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE; CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE

Last night's second and final presidential debate was much more familiar to political observers as an actual discussion of policy issues and concerns. President Trump was far more restrained and worked hard to defend his record as compared to the record of the Obama/Biden administration. Former Vice President Biden stayed close to his campaign themes of curbing COVID-19, repairing the economy, and fighting climate change and racism. 

All in all it was a tie, which means neither candidate likely lost a lot of ground among their base. But it is possible that Trump's performance lured back disaffected voters who voted for him in 2016 but were not planning to do so again. The sheer number of undecided voters may not be large enough to make a difference nationally, but in specific key swing states, it might be just enough to keep Trump in solid contention for re-election.