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[OPINION] The US presidential debates: Good Grandpa vs Bad Grandpa

Two grandpas met tonight in a heavyweight debate to decide the fate of the next 4 years. A glass building normally teeming with medical, dental, nursing, and social work students from Case Western Reserve University was converted into a socially-distanced arena with no audience to cheer or jeer. The title holder entered the ring in his signature tax-deductible pompadour over a dark suit and a diagonally striped tie. In the other corner, the challenger donned a dark suit and striped tie of his own, with a tastefully folded pocket square peeking out. The de rigueur American flag pins adorned both contenders’ lapels.

A Sunday news anchor stepped in to referee and lead off each round with a topic. The pugilists would take turns to throw punches for two uninterrupted minutes. The bout quickly devolved into a brawl, as the fighters sparred before and after the bell. Bad Grandpa repeatedly went off beat, dodging straightforward questions and shadow-boxing irrelevant opponents. Good Grandpa tried to keep his cool, but landed some scrappy jabs of his own in between parrying the furious counterpunches that were being thrown out of turn.

Supreme robes: The new streetwear

The Supreme Court was featured in the first round, with lower court vacancies appearing in a surprise encore undercard. One of my professors used to say that the Supreme Court’s decisions are not final because they are correct, but its judgements are correct because they are final. There is no higher authority that can overrule them, and all courts, state or federal, are bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions on Constitutional and other federal law.

Trump bragged about appointing 300 (count ‘em – 300) federal judges and soon, 3 Supreme Court Justices (a third of a court that regularly splits 5-4) and vowed to fill as many vacancies as he could until his last day in office. He expressed incredulity that Obama and Biden would leave 128 judicial vacancies open for him to fill, without acknowledging the role played by the short-lived McConnell Rule. Like an old grandpa reliving his greatest hits, Trump often seemed like he wanted Obama or his old nemesis Hillary as his opponent instead, interjecting their names into his attacks.

Hammering in a point he would return to through the debate, Biden pointed out that the people have a right to choose via ballot. Constitutionally, the President’s nominees for the Supreme Court (and many other important government positions) shall only be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate. 35 out of 100 seats in the Senate are up for grabs, and an incumbent administration would only need 50 (the Vice-President breaks ties) of them to confirm, deny, or ignore. Voting has already begun, and should last until every ballot postmarked by Election Day is counted.

Health is wealth

Biden plans to build upon the Affordable Care Act, which ensures that insurers cover 10 essential health benefits. People are still free to buy cheaper plans that don’t cover anything, but generally, the ACA is a baseline. People who can afford it buy even better insurance. Before the ACA, women were regularly charged triple what a man would be for the equivalent insurance. Rates would also skyrocket if you had a pre-existing condition, like ever having been sick before in your life.

Trump repeatedly boasted about repealing the individual mandate, meaning that people can choose to not buy insurance without having to pay a penalty to the government. His healthcare plan, which he said he had talked to big companies about, was to lower prescription drug prices 80-90% by having each state’s governor individually go to foreign countries and negotiate the price of medicine for their state.

Speed bag round

Biden jabbed at Trump about America’s failed coronavirus response, expressing sympathy for those who have lost mothers or fathers and didn’t get to say goodbye, and criticizing the president for saying the virus would go away like a miracle by Easter and stopping the post office from sending masks to every teacher and child in school. 

Trump admitted that 200,000 Americans died under his watch, but claimed it would have been 2 million if Biden was president. In general, he seemed a bit less empowered without an adoring audience cheering every haymaker, but he still tried to bully and insult throughout. Aside from his challenger, Trump also went after Biden's son, Nancy Pelosi, and his frenemy China.

'Stakes is high'

In retrospect, the moderator didn’t referee so much as emcee and instigate. He asked if Trump really paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017. He asked Biden if he supported the Green New Deal, agreed with things that Kamala Harris said, or if he would pack the court or kill the filibuster. While he didn’t fact-check the current occupant of government housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he did press him about condemning militias and white supremacists, which Trump declined. 

Rather than call them to stand down, Trump called on a far-right neo-fascist group to stand back and stand by, and called for his followers to go into polling places and observe voters. Trump claimed that a vaccine for COVID-19 would be ready within a few weeks. Maybe before the election, or maybe after. His stream-of-consciousness style of speech allows him to “both-sides” almost any issue like a law student that answers every question with, “It depends.”

Four more years?

Whichever way this election goes, we’re getting an old white grandpa for a president. One grandpa felt like the patriarch of an empire. He makes inappropriate jokes about anything he wants. People do his will because they want to be in his will. He will never stop and ask for directions or admit he is wrong, because in his mind, he never is. He says that the virus will magically disappear and that he has been the president that has done the most for Black people other than Lincoln. He touts the stock market and the economic numbers from before the recent recession. He distrusts any media that doesn’t agree with what he thinks. For better or worse, all he cares about is business. That bled into his replies even on other topics.

The other grandpa cares about science, teachers, climate change, fuel economy standards, and America’s veterans. He talks about unity and being there for all Americans in a time when our tribes have never been more divided. He doesn’t pay less taxes than a schoolteacher or think that American casualties of war are suckers or losers for having given life and limb for the country. He calls for manufacturing to come back to America and for people to be paid a prevailing wage. In contrast to his opponent, he seems to know and care about facts and issues, and to have plans.

Jury's out

The judges are still debating, with what will probably end in a split decision sometime in November, but at the end of the day, it comes to how voters feel about the past 4 years, and if they want more of the same, or if they want change. –

Jath Shao is a lawyer with offices in Bonifacio Global City, New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Taipei. He represents immigrants in all types of legal matters.