In the second and final presidential debate Thursday night, Americans witnessed a much less raucous, more coherent, and more substantive — in other words, a more normal — discussion than the first debate just three weeks ago.
That being said, it is safe to say the 96-minute exchange between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will likely not fundamentally alter the presidential race. Over 48 million Americans have already voted, and few people remain undecided.
However, in my view, President Trump’s performance was measured, on message, and controlled. Thus, for any remaining undecided voters and Republican-oriented voters who may have been discouraged by the president’s chaotic first debate, Trump’s performance Thursday night likely reassured them and may even have led some to resolve to cast ballots in his favor.
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Moreover, the president’s performance reinforces an argument I made in a Fox News op-ed earlier this week: that Biden is ahead, but his victory is not a forgone conclusion. And make no mistake, it is within the realm of possibility that Trump will stage a comeback that is reminiscent of his upset victory in 2016.
During the debate, Biden held his own for the most part, and his performance is not likely to dissuade any voters or impact his polling position.
However, as the night went on, Biden’s performance slowly diminished. He struggled to come up with coherent answers to pressing questions from Trump about controversial topics — such as receiving funds from Russian sources — other than to issue blanket denials and turning the accusation back onto Trump.
Further, Biden committed a number of gaffes throughout the night, including making a misplaced Hitler reference that confounded pundits across the aisle.
“Having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing,” Trump said of his relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Biden shot back, “That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe.”
Additionally, in a sign that the former vice president was growing increasingly uncomfortable, Biden checked his watch in the final 15 minutes of the debate in a way that for most older Americans was reminiscent of President George H.W. Bush during his 1992 town hall debate with challenger Bill Clinton, who went on to defeat Bush. The moment painted a picture of Bush as an out-of-touch career politician who was not attuned to the struggles of working families.
Though this will likely not be the case for Biden — given that Biden is for the most part viewed as a champion for the middle-class and working-class — the move was symbolic of Biden’s weakened performance as the night went on.
To that end, with some success, Trump worked to reclaim his 2016 role of an “outsider” running against a rival career politician. Trump landed several attacks on Biden for being a career politician who has been in Washington for five decades, yet has not achieved meaningful reforms on issues such as immigration.
“It’s all talk but no action with these politicians,” Trump said. “Why didn't you get it done? You had eight years to get it done.”
While it is harder for Trump to position himself as an “outsider” as the sitting president, his attacks on Biden also made it more difficult for Biden to present himself as a change agent who will enact meaningful reforms on immigration, crime and even health care.
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In terms of Biden’s strong points, as with the previous debates, Biden’s best moment was during the segment on the coronavirus pandemic. Facing a calmer and less volatile Trump, Biden was able to make the central case for his candidacy: that this election should be a referendum on Trump’s failed pandemic leadership.
“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 at all’ initially — anyone that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America,” Biden said.
The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 222,000 Americans, and more than 8.3 million people in the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus.
In another plus for Biden — and to the likely disappointment of the Trump campaign — the former vice president successfully avoided a lengthy discussion about the foreign business contacts of his son Hunter.
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Biden’s flat-out denial of any wrongdoing or inappropriate behavior prevented Trump from compellingly linking Joe Biden to Hunter’s activities in a way that could help Trump politically.
Ultimately, in my view, Trump’s performance was by all measures stronger than Biden’s, and demonstrated to voters that the president is still in the race.
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