Had Donald Trump debated three weeks ago the way he did Thursday, he might be in a better place.
His defense of his handling of the pandemic was cogent. He aligned himself with the public health experts he’s previously attacked. He took credit for a robust stock market.
But there was no winning this debate — not 12 days out from an election in which 47 million people have already voted and the number of people who say they’re undecided is roughly equal to the number of people who lie.
Instead, the final 2020 debate functioned largely as one last, 90-minute distillation of everything that has burned Trump all year.
Right at the start, the moderator, Kristen Welker, read to Americans the list of horrors: the number of people hospitalized, the thousands of people who have died since the candidates last debated. The country, Welker said, “is heading into a dangerous new phase.”
Then Biden piled on. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” he said, saying anyone responsible for as many deaths as the United States has weathered “should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
The opening minutes of any debate are typically the most important, and it was unfortunate for Trump that it started with the pandemic, a persistent drag on Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s closing argument, such as it is, was that on the pandemic and the economy, he did better than any president could — and better than Biden would.
But wishing something to be true on a debate stage doesn’t make it so.
There is a reason Biden is polling ahead everywhere and has been all along. Likely voters prefer him to Trump on health care, the coronavirus and Supreme Court nominations, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released ahead of the debate. And any advantage Trump once held over Biden on the economy is gone.
Trump did do better than he did in his disastrous first debate. But even that won’t serve him — inviting post-debate comparisons not to Biden, but to his own past. “Better than last month’s train wreck” isn’t the closing argument Trump needed to make tonight.
Here are our takeaways from the final debate of 2020:
Trump got off the floor
Trump did two important things for himself on Thursday. First, he put forward a coherent defense of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And second, he did what his advisers suggested he would do. He toned himself down, amplifying the substance of what he said over the bombast — pushing the spotlight onto Biden.
The coronavirus, Trump said, was “China’s fault,” not his. A vaccine is on the way. Biden, he said, didn’t recognize the danger of the virus as early as he did.
Had this performance come in the first debate, Trump might have had something going. It’s a cruel thing for him that, instead, it mostly served as a reminder of the opportunities he missed before.
His constant interruptions in the first debate, in September, turned off viewers, who scored Biden as the winner once they pulled their jaws up off the floor. Trump’s polling deficit widened slightly after the debate. Then, to the dismay of top Republicans, Trump skipped the second debate altogether.
He could talk about Biden’s family and his “47 years” of government experience all he wants. And he did on Thursday.
Trump is the incumbent, while a raging pandemic has killed more than 220,000 Americans and left the economy in tatters.
The biggest mistake Trump may have made was to say the plain truth about his view of the Affordable Care Act, which is that he would like to “terminate it, come up with a brand new beautiful health care” plan.
He hasn’t produced that comprehensive plan, of course. And as for the Affordable Care Act he wants to undo, public approval is at a record high.
Paging Hunter Biden
The shrewd thing Trump did Thursday was to make his attack on the Biden family’s business dealings less personal. He painted Biden as a “corrupt” politician, the more effective path. And one that worked for him in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.
The mistake was that Trump’s criticism was so opaque — and the conversation surrounding it so muddled — that only close readers of the New York Post likely knew what he was talking about.
Instead, viewers heard the same vague charges and rebuttals Trump and Biden have traded before. “Nothing was unethical,” Biden said.
There’s a reason that Hunter Biden was not included on the list of topics for the final debate. Unlike the coronavirus or race in America, Biden’s son is not at the top of voters’ minds. And the story is dubious enough that it will be hard for Trump to implant it there.
Dozens of former senior intelligence officials this week signed on to a letter casting doubt on the disclosure, saying it “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation,” though Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Monday it is not.
Either the moderator or the candidates — both, it turned out — seemed to think what this presidential campaign needed was a policy discussion. So, they had it.
Trump and Biden wrangled over the 1994 crime bill and discussed Biden’s climate change plan in some detail. Immigration — the issue that defined Trump’s first campaign, but has been all but absent from this one — made its return.
The conversation could be one of the more important in the debate. Trump has made some inroads with Black and Latino voters, though he is still losing them by a large margin to Biden. It is a point of concern for Democrats.
Biden chastised Trump for separating migrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s criminal,” Biden said. Trump responded with a reminder of the Obama administration’s own record on the border. He said, “Who made the cages, Joe?”
The victory for Trump here will be if one “soft” Biden supporter decides to say home after seeing this. The risk for him is that any reminder of his policies at the border will further mobilize voters of color against him.
To train wreck or not
Credit the mute button and the moderator, Kristen Welker, for keeping the debate on the rails.
“President Trump, your reaction?” she asked at one point, filling a silence that would never have been available three weeks ago.
If you hear anyone say it was boring, run. There is a perverse incentive attached to events that are designed as much for the resulting coverage as for the immediate viewing audience. Conflict and outrage generate interest. Less, though, thoughtful dialogue.
“The media’s hypocrisy is that they want a car wreck, and then they complain about a car wreck,” said Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina.
Thursday wasn’t a car wreck. And truth is, it likely wouldn’t have mattered much if it was. Debates rarely affect the course of a campaign, and earlier debates tend to matter more than later ones. Following the final debate of the 2016 election, it was not uncommon to read headlines such as this one: “Clinton Probably Finished Off Trump Last night.”
As so often is the case, it didn’t matter as much as it seemed to at the time.
Democrats always worry. Biden was fine.
One benefit for Democrats of Trump’s implosion in the first debate is that — except for the time he called Trump a “clown” — nobody paid much attention to Biden.
The prospect that Biden would get a look on Thursday, naturally, put them on edge.
Biden hasn’t always been a consistent debater, and with his opponent’s microphone muted for two minutes at the start of each 15-minute segment tonight, he had a lot of time to fill.
“I worry what happens when he has two uninterrupted minutes,” one Democratic strategist in Washington said before the debate. “He needs to keep it tight and on point.”
He didn’t always. He muffed some lines, and it was a mistake to bring up Rudy Giuliani.
But Biden had sharp moments, too – on the coronavirus, on immigration. At one point, he deftly turned the conversation from his own family and Trump’s, telling the audience, “It’s about your family. And your family’s hurting badly.”
Biden didn’t need to have a standout event. He’s the candidate who’s ahead.
Michael Steel, a Republican strategist, said that if Biden “doesn’t pee himself on stage … he will have exceeded expectations.” Mission accomplished.