After a mostly unwatchable first debate, then a canceled second one, we got a heated but relatively substantive final matchup between Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.
Below are some take-aways.
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1. Trump offers no course correction on the novel coronavirus
For weeks, perhaps the biggest question has been whether the president, who trails so significantly in the polls might see fit to do something different.
The revised format and Trump’s approach led to fewer interruptions than the first debate. But from the jump, the content of Trump’s case was familiar, especially on the biggest issue of the day, the coronavirus.
With his first words, Trump recycled the misleading claim that 2.2 million people were “expected to die” from the coronavirus. In fact, one model said that many could die, but only with precisely zero mitigation — which is an extremely low bar to brag about clearing.
Almost as quickly, Trump reverted to his long-running efforts to downplay the severity of the virus despite his long-running unpopularity on the issue.
“There was a spike in Florida, and it’s now gone,” Trump said. “There was a very big spike in Texas; it’s now gone. There was a very big spike in Arizona; it’s now gone. And there were some spikes and surges and other places; they will soon be gone. We have a vaccine that’s coming. It’s ready. It’s going to be announced within weeks, and it’s going to be delivered.”
Even as Trump was saying this, the number of cases nationwide was hitting its highest point since the middle of the summer, with hospitalizations and deaths also increasing. Trump has for weeks said the United States is turning the corner, and this was in the same vein.
Trump was also pressed on saying the vaccine was coming shortly; he backed off the assertion a bit.
“No, it’s not a guarantee, but it will be by the end of the year,” Trump said. “But I think it has a good chance.”
Trump also repeated his frequent and misleading claims that there are so many cases only because of so much testing. He also falsely quoted Anthony Fauci having said, “This is no problem, this is going to go away soon.” Trump even at one point said of the virus, “We’re learning to live with it.”
It wasn’t quite “it will go away,” as Trump spent much of the early outbreak saying. But the subtext was the same: Trump fudging and making up the details and downplaying the threat even as the numbers and health officials say something very different — that the nation is headed for a particularly arduous time and that the present trends are hardly so encouraging.
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2. Biden sharpens his coronavirus closing argument
Biden responded to Trump’s “learning to live with it” by pointedly saying: “We’re learning to die with it” — a comment that reflected some of his harshest comments yet about Trump’s coronavirus response.
Biden was trying to focus his closing argument against Trump.
“Two-hundred twenty thousand Americans dead,” Biden began. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: Anyone who is responsible, for not taking control — in fact, saying I take no responsibility initially — anyone that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
Biden also referenced Trump’s comments to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, in which Trump offered a much more dire account than he was publicly giving at that point.
“But he didn’t want to tell us,” Biden said. “He didn’t want to tell us because he didn’t want us to panic. He didn’t want us Americans don’t panic. He panicked.”
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3. Trump tries to bring up Hunter Biden, in fits and starts
If there was one thing Trump wanted to talk about at the start of the night, it was Hunter Biden. Nonconservative media have trodden uneasily around the story, given concerns about its veracity and the possibility that the information might have been filtered through foreign sources, which Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have repeatedly engaged in their quest for some kind of dirt on the Bidens. (Trump was impeached over precisely this.)
Trump even began the night with a bit of stagecraft that made his aim clear: He invited Hunter Biden’s business colleague Tony Bobulinski, who recently confirmed the veracity of some of the communications (similar to Trump inviting Bill Clinton’s accusers to a 2016 debate with the former president’s wife). Trump was trying to make the story, which has been largely avoided, unavoidable.
And he was able to address it, to some extent.
“But now what came out today is worse — all of the emails, the horrible emails of the money you were raking in, you and your family,” Trump said. “I think you owe an explanation to the American people. Why is it somebody just had a news conference a little while ago who was essentially supposed to work with you? And your family? But what he said was damning.”
Precisely what was so “damning,” though, wasn’t clear. Trump repeatedly alluded to the idea that Biden was getting money from foreign sources without connecting the dots on it. There was no dwelling upon what the emails even showed.
Biden did respond in some substance, saying, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life.” But then he pivoted to making Trump the issue, noting that The New York Times recently reported about a previously undisclosed bank account that Trump has in China and that Trump has paid more in taxes there than in the United States.
Trump let himself be lured into accounting for Biden’s attack, and the attack on Hunter Biden largely fell by the wayside. Trump later mentioned Hunter Biden’s discharge from the military, his work for the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma and his “laptop from hell,” which Joe Biden responded to by suggesting the whole thing was related to Russian disinformation. But in each case, the debate quickly moved on, and virtually anyone watching who wasn’t already familiar with the story probably wouldn’t know what to make of it all.
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4. A better debate
The format changes, which included the candidates being muted as the other was allowed to spend two minutes initially responding to a question, were contentious. Trump and his allies also built up the debate by repeatedly criticizing moderator Kristen Welker for allegedly be being biased against him.
But it all worked. There were fewer interruptions — perhaps because Trump recognized it didn’t really work for him last time, but also because of the changes — and there was much more of a substantive exchange on the issues. Welker moved things along frequently, allowing many different topics to be discussed.
It was far from the dumpster fire that the first debate was.
And at one point, even Trump seemed to appreciate it.
“So far,” Trump told NBC News’s Welker about halfway through the debate, “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”