Thank God for muted mics—or at least for the threat of them. Though it’s unclear how much the tactic was actually employed, the potential for an embarrassing cutoff prompted the most debate-like presidential debate of the 2020 cycle. Granted, that’s not saying much; Donald Trump still implied that migrant children separated from their families at the border land in the lap of luxury, and repeated many of the same debunked claims he’s been spouting for the past four years. On balance, Joe Biden’s performance didn’t blow anyone away, but it was just what he needed. Here’s what the Hive team took away from Thursday night.
Gabriel Sherman: Trump started the night speaking at a moderate decibel level. He answered in complete sentences. He didn’t interrupt. He even complimented moderator Kristen Welker! His (almost) civil delivery departed sharply from his widely panned performance at the opening debate. With 12 days until Election Day, he was finally trying to appeal to people who don’t watch Sean Hannity.
But 30 minutes in, Trump turned the conversation to Hunter Biden’s “horrible emails” and promptly descended into the right-wing fever swamps. He couldn’t even follow his own thread. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he said at one point. In split screen you could see Biden’s eyes bulge when Trump unspooled inchoate conspiracies about various foreign payoffs, as if he was thinking, Is this guy still roided up? Trump torched whatever positive impressions he might have made at the outset.
Biden did what he had to do. He had some strong lines. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked,” he said about Trump’s failed coronavirus response. It’s hard to see this debate mattering. But Biden’s peroration about the horror of Trump’s child-separation policy made it clear just how much the election does. “Those kids are alone.… It’s criminal,” Biden said.
Emily Jane Fox: Anyone with a Twitter account and a pulse knew Hunter Biden would come up during this debate, and it forced me to think about presidential children and their role in recent elections. Of course I’ve thought about, written about, talked about this current first family almost every day since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. Exactly this week four years ago, I was reporting a story about Ivanka Trump’s plan to revive her eponymous lifestyle brand after her father would inevitably lose against Hillary Clinton. And there was, in fact, a plan, though both the plan and story were scrapped once Trump won. Instead Ivanka has spent the last four years advancing her brand as princess of America while steamrolling laws and norms in a handful of ways. Last week alone she violated the Hatch Act by promoting Trump’s campaign on Twitter while also using the account as a White House employee. The very fact that she and her husband, Jared Kushner, work in the White House at all violates an anti-nepotism law that was in place for 50 years until the DOJ decided it no longer applied. And as White House employees, they continued to use private email addresses to conduct official business, despite the dripping irony and protocols. That’s saying nothing of the fact that neither of them could get their high-level security clearance without Ivanka’s father intervening. There’s also the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project, which the Trump children planned for and worked on well into the 2016 presidential campaign, and the dirt Don Jr. tried to dig up on Hillary Clinton, with the help of Russian operatives, from his office in Trump Tower.
It would have been easy for both candidates to go down the unethical-child road on Thursday night. Yet none of this came up in the debate, despite Biden advisers urging him to swipe back when Trump dragged Hunter into the conversation. Perhaps Biden realized the American people didn’t need all of this pointed out, because the Trump family did it in plain sight. Perhaps he thought it better to ignore the subject. Or perhaps, as he said onstage, the Americans won’t care about the Biden children or the Trump children when they head to the ballot box. They’ll vote for their own children—whether they will be able to safely attend school, keep their health care, not be profiled by the police, have access to a vaccine or a planet that can sustain human life.
I understand why the president would make the closing argument of his campaign about something so irrelevant to the average American’s life. One, because he’s never once tried to understand what an average American life looks like. And two, because the things that matter to most people—the pandemic, the economy, health care—all break badly for him. To waste these last precious moments on inane diversions serves him, so expect much more of that in the days to come.
Chris Smith:: Biden was ready for the moment. He wasn’t sure exactly how Trump might phrase the callousness about the hundreds of thousands of American coronavirus deaths this time. But Trump has been doing it, repeatedly, for months—“I don’t take any responsibility”; “It is what it is.” Getting sick from the virus himself hadn’t humbled Trump in the slightest. Just the opposite: Now that he’s supposedly “immune,” Trump seems, remarkably, to have even less empathy for all the suckers and losers who can’t get extraordinary, taxpayer-funded medical care. So less than 15 minutes into the second and final 2020 presidential debate, when asked about his plans to rescue the country as a second pandemic wave grows, Trump started with his usual hype about a phantom vaccine that’s “going to be announced within weeks” and how “we’re opening up our country.” And then he finished with: “We’re learning to live with it. We have no choice.”
The phrasing was new, but the opening was the same, and Biden didn’t miss his chance. He chuckled slyly, allowing Trump to ramble through a taunt about living in a basement and something about Gold Star families, then politely made sure Welker didn’t move on to another question just yet. “He says that we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it,” Biden said, his voice rising as he shifted his eyes from Welker to the camera and reached his right hand out toward the voters watching. “You folks at home will have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning. That man or wife going to bed tonight and reaching over to try to touch, out of habit, where their wife or husband was—is gone. Learning to live with it? Come on! We’re dying with it.”
The mix of anger and sadness—of humanity, really—was just right, even if the lines seemed a bit scripted, the points scored strategically. Trump’s answers were significantly more coherent than in the first debate—which is not to say they made sense. But he kept underlining the emotional gap between the two contenders, and his core heartlessness—saying that it’s only the stupid immigrants who show up for court, saying that people living near polluting factories should be grateful because they’re making money. No matter how hard Trump tried to slag Hunter Biden or to tar Joe Biden as a socialist (an attack that prompted Biden’s second-best line of the night: “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against somebody else”) or to appeal to Americans’ love of…the oil industry, Biden kept bringing the conversation back to Trump’s lethal failure to contain the coronavirus, and the damage it has done to average Americans. Maybe the president wins reelection 11 days from now. But in two crisp sentences, Biden nailed the case for why Trump should lose.
Joe Hagan: If you’re the kind of person who, after four years, still finds Donald Trump’s huffy-puffy, blowfish-faced theatrics and Olympic-sport lying refreshing, you probably liked Donald Trump’s performance in the final debate. If your idea of the leader of the free world is a boorish bouncer at a Staten Island strip club, here was your man. If you want an actual president—an empathetic, fact-based president from a reality you recognize—you probably liked Joe Biden. Biden held his own and Trump was a simulacrum of a sane person, but as David Axelrod pointed out on CNN afterwards, a draw was a win for Biden, who only needed to hold his ground.
That said, Trump landed one blow on Biden that was concerning—not a knockout punch, but an opening. When Biden pivoted from his alleged financial ties to China to making an emotional appeal to the kitchen-sink concerns of people at home, Trump mocked the move as the jujitsu of a professional politician, reframing Biden’s empathy as cynicism. Here was the Trump who beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, the insurgent anti-politician, and regardless of how outrageous and false his offensive was (the Wall Street Journal vaporized one of his go-to conspiracy theories later in the night), it was the kind of attack that Trump, were he disciplined, could build on if Biden didn’t diffuse it.
Biden won the night in the moment when, in split screen, he openly laughed at Trump’s absurd bloviating. It was probably the most effective nonverbal jab of the debate, Biden’s answer to Trump’s critique of him as a standard politician. Better a standard politician than a national joke.
William D. Cohan: What happened to cutting off the mics? I guess that was a canard in the end. But obviously this was at least a more civilized debate than the first one, so thank goodness for that. If Trump wanted to somehow make Biden look unpresidential, he failed completely. Biden more than held his own—albeit with some nervous-making moments. Trump continued his lying, blustering ways. This election is over. Trump is finished. The best he can hope for now is a pardon from President Biden hoping to heal the wounds into which Trump has poured acid.
Eric Lutz: Yelling or not, Trump only has about five or six things to say when you pull the string on his back, and none are particularly impressive or interesting—let alone truthful or presidential. No matter what he was asked by Kristen Welker, who turned in a strong performance as moderator, Trump managed to steer back to one of his played-out greatest hits. “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump,” he said, yet again carving out a “possible” exception for Abraham Lincoln. Biden is a “corrupt politician” whose son is in possession of the “laptop from hell,” Trump said at another point. “I am the least racist person in this room,” he said in a room that included a host of Black ancestry.
Bess Levin: “I don’t make money from China. You do. I don’t make money from Ukraine. You do. I don’t make money from Russia. You made $3.5 million, Joe, and your son gave you, they even have a statement that we have to give 10% to the big man. You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not, but you’re the big man, I think. Your son said we have to give 10% to the big man. Joe, what’s that all about? It’s terrible.” That really sums it up, right? Americans can either vote for Joe Biden, or they can vote for another four years of barely comprehensible attacks on Hunter Biden, all-caps Twitter screeds, QAnon conspiracy theories, and calls for the attorney general to jail the president’s opponents. It’s a tough call!
Abigail Tracy: Joe Biden is still Joe Biden, and that’s Trump’s biggest problem. The former vice president’s campaign has been an effective exercise in contrasts. During the Democratic primary, he drew policy distinctions between himself and the left flank of the field. Against Trump, his focus has shifted to character. With less than two weeks until the election, we know who these two men are. On the debate stage Thursday night, Biden repeatedly winked at this reality. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” he retorted when Trump attempted to lump him into the socialist camp by tying him to Bernie Sanders. “He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.” And in his final pitch to voters, “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth.”
Biden understands that the hay is in the barn. Now it’s time to let the people vote. The only performance that really mattered Thursday night was that of Welker, who faced a deluge of misplaced attacks on her journalistic integrity ahead of the Trump–Biden showdown. She crushed it.
Charlotte Klein: Oftentimes during the second and final presidential debate, Trump himself didn’t seem to believe what he was saying. “It will go away,” he said of the coronavirus pandemic, reiterating the false statement that “we’re rounding the corner” and “it’s going away” while the country braces for a third surge. Some minutes later, when Joe Biden noted Trump’s downplaying of the ongoing outbreak—paraphrasing how Trump “talks about ‘oh, don’t worry, it’s all going to be over soon’”—Trump shot back: “I didn’t say ‘over soon.’” Such brazen inconsistency isn’t new, of course: Even in 2016, when Trump was just the likely Republican nominee, Politico remarked that “Trump has turned the self-contradiction into an art form.” Yet nearly four years later, there was still something baffling about seeing his shifting stances side by side on Twitter, and on the slew of livestream analyses. Another conflicting answer Trump gave in the same section: “I take full responsibility,” he said of the virus, continuing with a justification that appeared to confuse accountability with blame: “It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.”
T.A. Frank: The most surprising thing about last night’s debate was that red and blue Americans alike thought that Welker played fair. I think she did too, mind you, but I’m not used to people on any side of anything agreeing with me. As for how each candidate did, I switched off the debate thinking Biden had come out ahead overall, and I navigated over to Twitter to see if anyone agreed. It turns out that lots of Biden supporters did agree. And lots of Trump supporters thought otherwise. The usual. Anyway, this viewer felt that Biden did best, mainly because of how things ended.
To Biden’s good fortune, the final two questions of the night let him sound presidential while Trump chose to be Trumpy. The first of those questions was about people who suffer health ailments from living close to oil and gas refineries. Trump answered, in effect, What do you mean? Whatever. They’re making bank. Biden underscored his policy knowledge by using the term “fence lines,” talked about the industrial pollution that he experienced firsthand as a kid, and argued that wages don’t make up for getting sick from fumes. The second question was about what each candidate would tell Americans on Inauguration Day. Trump started talking about how, under Biden, “your 401(k)s will go to hell.” It wasn’t JFK-like. Biden offered, “I will say I’m an American president. I represent all of you,” and so on. It was an easy pitch, but only one candidate hit the ball.
There were some points in Trump’s favor. First, just by staying civil, Trump did much better than he did at the last debate. That’s a little like saying toast is yummier than human hair, but let’s note the improvement. Second, Biden made some definitive denials about his connections to Hunter Biden’s business dealings. This is a risky way to play things. The press will not keep running interference for Biden after Trump is gone. But that is then, and now is now. Neither candidate could afford a disastrous night, but only Biden could afford a tie. That’s what Biden got, and more, and that’s why he won.
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