This year promises to present a presidential election quite unlike any other in American history: an election that will occur in the midst of a global pandemic and continuing efforts by Russian intelligence operatives to interfere in the democratic process. Regardless of political affiliation, it is important for voters (and law students, in particular) to be aware of the candidates’ positions and the historical context in which the election will take place. Here’s a look at the candidates and their positions, compiled by The Forum’s editorial board.
The incumbent in the 2020 presidential election is Donald J. Trump, who is running for a second term along with Vice President Mike Pence. The campaign’s official website, donaldjtrump.com, does not feature any specific, forward-looking policies, and instead focuses on ways for interested voters to get involved, press coverage of campaign events around the country, and registration information for upcoming events. The “Promises Kept” tab redirects the viewer to an external website, which features information about the administration’s policy initiatives over the last four years, including an emphasis on aggressive immigration policy enforcement, the construction of a “wall along the Southern border,” and economic policies and tax cuts intended to help spur business development. Based on statements made in debates and town halls, the administration will likely continue to push for strong immigration policy enforcement and efforts to stimulate the economy, which has slumped significantly during the ongoing pandemic. The campaign has also promised healthcare reform, with Trump expressing a desire to slash pharmaceutical prices in the first presidential debate. Government lawyers are also set to argue that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court later this term, after the Trump administration and Congress stripped the law’s tax provisions in 2017. But the campaign has faced significant controversy in recent months as the President has been criticized for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and comments that many viewers took as encouraging, rather than condemning, white supremacy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, his Vice Presidential candidate, hope to unseat Trump and Pence after just four years in office. The Biden campaign’s website, joebiden.com, features a range of policy positions, ranging from an expansion of the Obama administration’s signature Affordable Care Act to include a “public health insurance option like Medicare” and “[i]ncreasing the value of tax credits to lower premiums and extend coverage to more working Americans,” to advocating for a “Clean Energy Revolution” and aiming for a “100% clean energy economy” with “net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” Biden also seeks to reform immigration policy, largely by reversing many of the moves taken by the Trump administration, including “ending the prosecution of parents for minor immigration violations as an intimidation tactic, and prioritiz[ing] reunification of any children still separated from their families” while reforming the current system for seeking asylum. The campaign has also published a plan for addressing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including pushing for a national response, providing free testing for those who cannot pay, and allowing for greater “CDC sentinel surveillance programs and other surveillance programs so that [the government] can offer tests not only . . . to those who ask but also to those who may not know to ask.”
The first presidential debate garnered significant media attention not for any robust policy discussions, but for the behavior of the candidates: according to a Slate article, “Trump interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden or debate moderator Chris Wallace at least 128 times.” The debate became so acrimonious that Biden called Trump a “clown” and told him to “shut up,” followed by Trump making personal attacks on Biden’s son, Hunter, later in the evening. Days later, Trump announced that he had contracted COVID-19, leading to inquiries into whether Trump had been tested prior to the debate. The second presidential debate was cancelled after an online format was proposed, with both candidates holding competing town halls on national television instead. The final presidential debate was much more traditional, with the exception that the Commission on Presidential Debates gave the moderator the power to mute the candidates’ mics to stop the frequent interruptions that defined the first debate.
This election cycle is also historic in that Senator Harris is the first woman of Black or Indian descent to appear on a major party’s ticket as a candidate for vice president, and will become the first female vice president if she and Biden win the election. Harris, a former prosecutor and state Attorney General, rose to national prominence with her aggressive questioning in judicial confirmation hearings, and she has proved an effective advocate on the campaign trail. Harris delivered a strong performance in the vice presidential debate in early October and will likely play a prominent role in a Biden administration should the campaign prevail in the election.
But the election holds significantly more weight in these turbulent times than differences about social and economic policy. The election will largely be seen as a referendum on the Trump administration’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which, as of this writing, has taken over 228,000 American lives and continues to impact the economy and the daily lives of millions. Moreover, Trump is seeking to become the first president to win reelection after facing an impeachment trial in his first term. If Biden wins the election, he will become the oldest president in American history.
The election has also been complicated by the passing of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, 2020. Justice Ginsburg had indicated that she hoped her seat on the Court would not be filled until after the presidential election was complete. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Kentucky) pushed ahead to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh Circuit, despite having argued just four years prior—when Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit, Merrick Garland, was nominated to replace the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia—that a new justice should not be appointed close in time to an election. Both presidential candidates have been asked about the confirmation process in debates and on the campaign trail, and Biden and Harris have consistently maintained that a nominee should not be confirmed while an election is ongoing. Both had refused to explicitly answer whether they would consider “packing the court” if they win the election, until Biden ultimately stated he would create a bipartisan commission to study judicial reform in general. Barret was confirmed to the High Court on October 26.
Four years ago, the 2016 presidential election garnered significant controversy, as Trump won the electoral college but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by approximately three million votes. Those results, combined with confirmation of Russian attempts to interfere in the election, have led to an increased push for more Americans to vote. The Forum encourages all of our readers to research the candidates’ policies and to vote in the election, and we hope this brief preview article has been helpful.