Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson: Get your popcorn ready for the first presidential debate

Sep 29, 2020

Columnist Eugene Robinson will be online every Tuesday at 1 p.m. Eastern for Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson, where he'll talk about the latest political and cultural developments. Catch up on the transcript of his latest chat below.

Read Eugene Robinson's columns or catch up on past Eugene Robinson Live chats.

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Hi, everybody, and welcome to our weekly chat. Well, are you ready? Popcorn popped, blood pressure in check, shot glasses lined up, nerf-like foam items ready to hurl at the television screen? We're just hours away from the first presidential debate, and who but the Almighty has the slightest idea what might happen? I'll take a wild guess and predict that President Trump's newly revealed tax information will come up. I'll bet moderator Chris Wallace won't word it quite this way, but somebody has to ask Trump: "Are you a flagrant tax cheat or just a terrible businessman?" I guess an honest answer might be "Both" -- but I doubt we'll get many honest answers from Trump's side of the stage. Planned topics also include the pandemic, the economy and the reckoning on systemic racism. Trump will have to defend his record, which is not an easy thing to do -- even if you spend long hours in preparation, which Trump apparently hasn't done. And by the standard the Trump team has tried hard to establish, if Joe Biden manages to string together coherent sentences by appropriately using nouns and verbs, he wins. I'll be watching, of course, and so will my fellow Post columnists -- and we'll be commenting on the debate, in real-time. So come to washingtonpost.com tonight at 9 and look for a link to our running commentary! Let's get started.

This President watched 200,000 Americans die, played down the pandemic, fights with medical and science experts, etc., and he is going to come up with a health plan? Who believes it???

I certainly don't, and I'm not sure who does. The president's phantom health plan has been "coming in two weeks" for years now. Not holding my breath.

I have been wondering about this question and am curious why, when someone lies in a debate, there is not an immediate buzzer to so indicate. Why is it necessary to wait until after a debate when one side will have a fact checker and all the lies are revealed and another side may not do so and hence democracy is not given an opportunity to shine. Working on where "debate" came from and whether it can be called a "debate" if lying and attack comments unrelated to issues, i.e., insults, are made rather than staying to topics. Help please. Thank you.

These have always been presidential "debates" that do not conform to actual debate rules. I share everyone's frustration with the fact-checking problem -- especially tonight, since one of the two candidates lies all the time -- but I also have sympathy for the position debate moderator Chris Wallace will find himself in. Trying to correct every single misstatement is impossible even when the debaters are two garden-variety politicians. When one lies like Trump, it would be near-impossible to catch every one. I think he has to just aim for the biggest ones.

Hi Gene -- thanks for taking questions today and for your recent column. Given that, four years ago, it's pretty clear Secretary Clinton cleaned Trump's clock in all three debates and yet here we are stuck with the disaster that has been his presidency, I'm skeptical how much debates really change things. People will see what they want to see. My worry is that Biden is under considerable pressure to put Trump away once and for all, but if that doesn't happen decisively, no matter how poorly Trump does and how often he name calls and lies, we're going to have to deal with "the Trump has changed the narrative! It's a real race again!" stories. What do you think? What are you expecting to see tonight?

To be perfectly honest, I'll be surprised if tonight's debate changes many minds. I suppose Biden could completely blow it somehow, but he has never done that in a debate thus far in his 50-year political career. Trump will just bluff and bluster and make stuff up, and I don't think that will erode his hard-core base. The problem for Trump is that he's losing, and he needs to win the debate decisively, which he almost surely is incapable of doing.

I've been backing and forthing over whether to watch the "debate" this evening, but the NYT article pushed me over the edge. I'll fix the popcorn and I know where my *mute* button is on my remote. That Trump will not have an audience will not make him happy. BTW, I live in Maryland and just got my ballot last night. The nearest drop box to where I live is maybe 7 minutes away and I'll drop it in on Thursday. Damn, I'm ready!

That's another unusual thing about this debate. In quite a few states, people are already voting. But I guess this is just (to put it mildly) an unusual year.

Dear Mr. Robinson, First of all, thank you for your live chats. They truly make my Tuesdays. Regarding the debate tonight, do you think if Joe Biden does well in the debate or if the president appears weak according to analysts, Biden should forget about any more debates before the election and just allow the Harris/Pence debate to continue?

I think Biden will and probably should go through with all three debates, whatever happens tonight. I'm less sure about Trump. If he gets his clock cleaned tonight, I'm not sure he will want to repeat the experience.

I haven't heard this posed yet: Weren't many evangelical supporters of Trump said to have been so because they wanted to change the Supreme Court to swing it so that RvW would be overturned? If now, that's been done, can't the Dem's claim there's no longer that reason to vote for him now?

That's a good point. When Justice Ginsburg died, I actually wondered if Trump might delay the confirmation until after the election to give anti-abortion voters an incentive to come out and vote. But he and McConnell seem to have decided that maybe confirming Barrett before the election would create "momentum" for the GOP ticket. 

My latest Trump nightmare: could he, when no longer prez, actually sell our most important state secrets in order to bail himself out when his $400+ million loans come due? It's bad enough that foreign entities have leverage over him, but this seems to be an even scarier scenario. Can our intel community save us? Help me down from the ledge, Gene!

Look, what can I say? Excessive debt is a common reason for denial of top-secret security clearances, apparently. The theory is that someone drowning in debt is dangerously vulnerable. President Trump has access to our most closely guarded secrets. This is not good.

Why isn’t this being addressed more? Doesn’t payroll tax pay mostly into our social security program? And if terminated wouldn’t Social security run out pretty quick? Wouldn’t that be crippling for people on disability first and retirement benefits to follow? People need to see that video replayed over and over with explanations of what that would mean to us. My mom didn’t believe me when I told her what he said. She said that it was Biden who wants to destroy the United States

It should be replayed over and over again, and Trump must be asked about it tonight. Without the money collected in payroll taxes, Social Security would be broke within just a few years. I think the estimate was 2023. What Trump said simply cannot be a serious proposal. He should be pressed on it.

Is there anything Dems can do to slow the process down to Nov 3rd? Perhaps if we vote out enough Republican Senators there may be hope they can’t hold a vote to confirm. Another question how can an Impeached President be allowed to fill the SC with his nominees? And last isn’t Trumps constant doubt casting on the mail-in ballots and refusing to answer whether he will accept the outcome an obstruction of his duties to uphold the people’s right to select a President and expect a peaceful transfer of power?

The unfortunate facts are that Donald Trump will be president until Jan. 20 (at least) and Republicans will have a majority in the Senate until January. So they have the power to confirm Barrett, period. If Trump and the GOP are made to suffer a massive, humiliating defeat in the election, then maybe there's a chance that some senators would hesitate to fill the seat during the lame-duck session. That's probably one reason why McConnell wants to get it done before Nov. 3.

I hear Trump supporters express concern that a vote for Biden, or any Democrat, is a vote for socialism. I think this is balderdash but why do Republicans seem to fear this so much and what would it mean? Or, is this just one of those topics like deficit spending that is only a problem when Democrats are in power?

"Socialism" is the best Republicans have been able to come up with to throw at Biden, and it's patently absurd. Absolutely nothing about Biden's long career suggests he's anything but a mainstream Democrat. But the GOP is desperately trying to come up with something to rally the base.

Despite warnings of a possible surge in the corona virus, DeSantis lifted restrictions on businesses including restaurants and bars. It seems reckless considering we've reached 200,000 deaths due to the virus. He claims local governments must follow the order, but I thought of the mayor of Atlanta defying the governor of Georgia's order about not mandating masks, and I believe he backed down. My question is must local governments allow bars and restaurants at full capacity?

This is insane. If you want to create a huge spike in covid-19 cases, the best way to do so is to open all restaurants and (especially) bars to full-capacity service. The second-best way is probably to insist that schools open for in-person instruction before infection rates have been driven sufficiently low. I repeat: This is insane.

I don't think packing the Supreme Court will work (4 seats?) or be well received, or survive the next change of power. But (assuming we take the Senate) we could grant statehood to DC, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Pacific Islands (Guam, Samoa, etc.). It would balance out the low population red states (Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota) with low population blue states and even help balance out the Electoral College. And statehood can't be reversed (or we'd've done it to ole Miss in the late 60s, early 70s).

I think that if Democrats win the White House and both houses of Congress, one of the first things they should do is begin the process of admitting the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states (if that is what residents of D.C. and P.R. want). This is a matter of simple fairness. I don't know if Virgin Islanders and Pacific Islanders want statehood, too, but we should find out. This is a matter of simple fairness. American citizens should have voting representation in Congress. That is a founding principle of this country and it is shamefully being dishonored.

What are the chances that a few republicans for whatever reason decide to not confirm the current nominee? Don't they realize that if they confirm or move forward with this vote it opens the door to escalating this SCOTUS fight to expanding the court? I can understand that the appeal on their end to move forward is tempting but this is something that will put real pressure on the republican senators that are already at risk as well as inflame the general public.

Aside from Sens. Collins and Murkowski, Republicans seem to have decided to push ahead. Some believe it is simply that important to put another conservative on the Supreme Court. Others think their political survival is more likely if they stick with Trump and McConnell. 

Why did republicans that were opposed to Trump as a candidate fall into following and agreeing with him? The impeachment was their chance to get VP Pence in why didn’t they take it?

Because Trump has a stranglehold on the GOP base and is extremely popular among Republicans. So those who might have been tempted to oppose Trump's outrages feared they would be abandoned or punished by their own loyal voters. 

One thing I am grateful to Trump for is that his election, term, and now, campaign has brought all of the racists, white supremacists, and neo-nazis out of the closet. Citizens I never would have suspected of such are now in full view and loving the attention in living color and four part harmonies.

You could argue either side of this question. Perhaps it's better to have all the ugliness out in the open. Or perhaps living together in a diverse society means suppressing deep-seated prejudices; and maybe suppressing them weakens them over time. I don't know which view is right.

So do Republicans want to overturn Roe v. Wade or not since they seem all over the place about it rather than just saying, 'heck yeah we do'?

Most Republicans in the Senate want Roe overturned. Most Americans, according to polls, do not.

did you honestly think things would be as bad as they have been in the Trump regime? I remember comforting a young woman who was weeping piteously over the results. Now I think I should have been shedding tears with her.

I thought it would be really, really, unbearably bad. I was right.

Did the Trump taxes story overshadow the SC justice fight for the time being? I see that Des Moines's t-shirt shop already has shirts saying "I pay more taxes than Trump."

When the Barrett hearings start, we'll be back to talking about the Supreme Court. But the revelations about Trump's taxes won't go away.

Hi Eugene - will you be providing any election analysis on TV today?

On MSNBC, after the debate.

I consider myself fortunate to be on-call at the hospital where I work during tonight's debate. Even if I don't get called in, being on-call will prevent me from playing a dangerous drinking game where I drink every time Trump lies! Anyway, I suspect that the revelations about Trump's tax shenanigans will not do the slightest thing to sway his base supporters. Do you agree, or do you see it having an effect?

Two observations: First, no one, under any circumstances, should play a drinking game in which they take a shot whenever Trump lies. That would be deadly. Second, I've given up issuing confident predictions of any kind. Let's tune in, fasten our seat belts, and see what happens.


That's it for today, folks. Our time is up. Check out our running debate commentary tonight -- look for a link on the Washington Post home page -- and I'll see you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" (2010), "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.
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