America's tranquil suburbs were regrettably dragged into tonight's presidential debate. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred fiercely, and occasionally coherently, over which one of their candidacies posed the greatest risk to these tidy communities.
"If [Biden] ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he would want to run it, our suburbs would be gone," said Trump, winding up a rant about recent violence in Democrat-controlled cities like Chicago and Portland.
Trump was basically repeating an accusation he's levied before: that Biden wants to "abolish the suburbs" through a soft-on-crime approach and intrusive federal housing policies.
In particular, Trump has singled out a campaign proposal of Biden's to require jurisdictions receiving federal housing and transportation grants to implement policies intended to make housing more affordable and inclusive. Under Biden's proposal, that could include everything from allowing the construction of apartment buildings in low-density neighborhoods to banning landlords from asking about potential tenants' criminal history.
That proposal is a more muscular version of an Obama-era fair housing regulation that the Trump administration gutted this summer over the alleged threat it posed to suburban communities' single-family zoning policies.
Biden responded by accusing Trump, a New York City native, of being ignorant of suburbs as they exist today, and of making racially coded attacks. Trump wouldn't know a "suburb unless [he] took a wrong turn," said Biden. "This is not 1950. All these dog whistles and racism don't work anymore."
The former vice president went on to insist that today, "suburbs are by and large integrated."
Interestingly, Trump and his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, have also seized on the argument that suburbs are more integrated today than in the past to defend single-family zoning. If suburbs are racially inclusive already, then their zoning policies clearly aren't excluding people because of their race, the argument goes.
Biden went on to argue that the COVID-19 pandemic, floods, and fires pose a much greater risk to the lives and livelihoods of suburban residents, with the implication being that the president's failure on climate change and COVID-19 made him the real anti-suburbs candidate.
The intensity of the exchange is odd when one considers what little control the federal government exercises over the quality and character of suburban life.
While the federal government can pull some strings when it comes to funding and regulation, suburban communities' zoning codes and approaches to law enforcement hinge more on who gets elected to city hall than who occupies the White House.
On the debate stage tonight, suburbs existed as more of a political and cultural football both candidates wanted to defend than as a policy issue they were eager to sink their teeth into.
Those who do have strong opinions about preserving the suburbs (or their own sanity) would have been better off skipping tonight's debate and boning up on who is running for office closer to home.