The Commission on Presidential Debates has released six topic areas for the first one-on-one face-off next Tuesday between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But there really is one urgent issue — the coronavirus pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the U.S.
COVID-19, the biggest crisis of its kind in a lifetime, has its own place on the debate list. So does the economy, which would come up even if the virus had not tanked businesses of all kinds to the point where nobody can tell whether all can return to normal.
Trump has been hyping his earlier employment numbers, which were depressed by the health disaster. Biden says recovery from what could be a long recession depends on beating back the virus. A widely cited model from the University of Washington has the U.S. coronavirus death toll doubling to a heartbreaking 400,000 by the end of the year — though if more Americans wore masks, deaths could be reduced by 30%.
Replacing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with Trump expected to announce his third Supreme Court nominee on Saturday, forms another debate topic. The themes of the candidates' differences are perennial. They are rooted in the divisive issues of abortion, gun control and health insurance. Biden seeks to link a more conservative court to Trump's moves to crush Obamacare despite the pandemic.
So even the court pick has implications for the national health emergency.
Another topic, race and violence in the cities, is perennial too, unlike the pandemic. Trump's criticism of Democratic-run cities and states as bring out of control echoes his heckle-from-the-sidelines taunts urging faster "reopening" from public-health lockdowns. Biden has been looking to balance support for changes in police measures with warnings against looting and mayhem.
Expect Trump to ratchet up the rhetoric on that one.
Election integrity, another topic, will stem in part from issues raised during and after the 2016 race, including continued Russian cybermeddling and Trump’s statements undermining confidence in the ballot process based on a canard of "voter fraud." The pandemic affects election procedures primarily by forcing expansion of mail-in voting that Trump has attacked.
Comparing the Biden and Trump records in public office makes for the most obvious entry on the list of debate topics. But the incumbent has to answer for inaction on COVID-19, so the virus will spread into that subject as well.
Fifteen minutes have been set aside for each topic segment in the 90-minute commercial-free debate, to be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Officials said the plans could be adjusted for major breaking-news developments.