Election 2020 has been a lot of things, but ‘substantive’ is surely not one of them. That’s why my hat’s off to the next president of the United States – because both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden actually focused on some policy issues in this year’s final presidential debate. Thankfully, the candidates discussed race and drug policy, along with prison and criminal justice reform.
Sadly, they devoted less than 15 minutes to all four of those sweeping topics that could have easily eaten up two hours on their own. And half of that time was spent on tangents, accusations and defending their past records, even as hundreds of thousands of prisoners wish American politicians – especially the next president – spent more time defending them. Because the system’s currently set up to make them defenseless.
The detours into the petty politics of today happened in spite of the stellar job done by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC. She even earned a rare bit of praise – “By the way, so far I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say” – from the self-declared enemy of the press (FYI, no journalist considers him their enemy – antagonist and liar, surely; we are reporters after all. But never enemy). But even a pro like Welker couldn’t keep the next American president focused on racial relations and the failed war on ‘drugs’ for even a sustained 15 minutes.
Both of these septuagenarians raised salient, if damning, points about their opponent’s past records on these pressing issues.
Trump rightfully highlighted the deep flaws in the 1994 crime bill that Biden authored while chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office, which codified the mandatory minimum sentences that have tied judges’ hands since it passed, while also causing American prisons to overflow with non-violent drug offenders; most of whom are either Black or Brown.
“He’s been in government 47 years. He never did a thing. Except in 1994 when he did such harm to the Black community,” Trump rightly claimed, before tacking on a falsehood at the end. “And they were called, and he called them, ‘super predators.’”
I think we can all agree that Biden – for better or worse – is no Hillary Clinton. And just as Obama is no longer president, Hillary isn’t this year’s Democratic presidential nominee. Biden is.
In a rarity for the Washington political class these days, the former vice president refreshingly admitted he was wrong when he supported the 1994 crime bill’s sentencing disparity between powder cocaine – which us white folks have been known to use and abuse in the suburbs – and crack cocaine – which is more of an urban street drug.
For decades that disparity – 100 to 1 – meant someone caught distributing 500 grams of powder coke would get five years in jail, even as that same five year sentence would be slapped on anyone arrested with just 5 grams of crack. Biden owned the tragic misstep he led the nation down in 1994.
“It was a mistake. I’ve been trying to change that sense, and particularly the portion on cocaine. That’s why I’ve been arguing that, in fact, we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense. They should be going into treatment – across the board. That’s where we should be spending money,” Biden said.
Trump was having none of it, thus he never even bothered to lay out his ever-evolving drug policy. And he kept focusing on the fact that he signed a bipartisan and sweeping – if still a drop in America’s racist bucket – criminal justice reform proposal that the Obama and Biden administration failed to pass.
“See, it’s all talk, no action with these politicians. Why didn’t he get it done?” Trump shot back. “You were vice president, along with Obama as your president, your leader, for eight years. Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years to get it done. Now you’re saying you’re gonna get it, because you’re all talk and no action, Joe.”
The president seems to have spent most of the Obama-Biden years on Fox News, The Apprentice and Twitter, because he didn’t seem aware that Republican leaders in the House and Senate refused to work with that administration, even on areas where the two parties agreed. But, as Biden reminded Trump, that GOP blockade eventually led Obama and Biden to open thousands of cell blocks nationwide without needing assistance of a Congress hellbent on defeating anything they proposed.
“We got a lot of it done. We released 38,000 prisoners…from federal prison. There were over 1,000 people who were given clemency,” Biden said. “We began the process; we lost an election. That’s why I’m running to win back that election and change this terrible policy.”
As for Biden, he rightfully pointed out America’s deep-seated racism – which includes Trump’s own recent and past forays into racial “relations” – that’s now so intertwined in our cultural identity that many still can’t even see it.
“The fact of the matter is, there is institutional racism in America, and we have always said, but, we’ve never lived up to it, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created equal.’ But guess what? We have never, ever lived up to it,” Biden said. “We’ve constantly been moving the needle further and further to inclusion, not exclusion. This is the first president to come along and say, ‘That’s the end of that. We’re not going to do that anymore.’”
In true Trumpian fashion, the president was having none of that.
“Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump. And if you look – with the exception of Abraham Lincoln; possible exception, but the exception of Abraham Lincoln – nobody has done what I’ve done,” Trump said.
The president has repeated that line so often at his rallies that he may even believe it now. Biden’s never been to a Trump rally and he doesn’t drink Trump wine or vodka, and especially not Trump’s Kool-Aid.
“[Trump] pours fuel on every single racist fire. Every single one. Started off his campaign coming down the escalator, saying he was gonna get rid of those Mexican rapists. He banned Muslims because they’re Muslims,” Biden said. “This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Biden stayed as focused on these pressing questions as possible. He laid out his plan to infuse $20 billion into the states as a way of enticing governors into relaxing their own mandatory minimum laws that mimic the national one he helped usher in.
“No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem. They should be going to rehabilitation, not to jail. We should fundamentally change the system, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Biden said.
But Trump wanted to change the subject off of race and drug policy, so he accused Biden of profiting off his relationships with foreign leaders.
“If this stuff is true about Russia, Ukraine, China, other countries, Iraq. If this is true then he’s a corrupt politician. So don’t give me the stuff about how you’re this innocent baby. Joe, they’re calling you a corrupt politician,” Trump said.
“Nobody’s calling me that,” Biden shot back.
Biden doesn’t seem to have tuned into Fox News or conservative radio of late, but that’s besides the point. The point is America’s race – and racist – problem. But even that seemed lost on Trump.
“I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump said. “I am the least racist person. I can’t even see the audience, because it’s so dark. But I don’t care who’s in the audience, I’m the least racist person in this room.”
That’s the point: The nation’s political class has collectively put blinders on for far too long. And it’s time they shine a White House-sized flashlight on these persistent, generational and truly American problems.
At one point, Welker tried to reign the debate back in, so she gently tried to refocus the conversation back on the issue that was the talk of the nation just a few months ago.
“President Trump, I want to stay on the issue of race,” Welker said. “President Trump, we’re talking about race right now, and I do want to stay on the issue of race.”
President Trump, for his part, seemed as eager to move past a long overdue conversation on race as he was to distort his own record on the issue.