Who won the debate

On the key issue of Covid, President Trump didn't do himself any favors during Thursday's debate.

During the debate Trump reached into his usual bag of tricks about the virus: He claimed his actions saved more than two million lives from the "China virus" and that a vaccine will be forthcoming "within weeks."

Of course, that figure of more than two million deaths referred to a projection on mortality that would result from inaction—something no functional government would have allowed in the face of an onrushing pandemic. And, yes, the virus did originate in China, but it also came into the US from Europe and then it spread like wildfire inside the United States, all while the President mocked mask-wearing, which is the most effective tool against the virus.

During the debate Trump did not lay out any kind of real plan to mitigate the worst public health crisis in the United States in a century. If he had done so, he might have won over some undecided voters, but he seems incapable of doing so.

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos."

Scott Jennings: Trump delivers the performance he needed

Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings

Main takeaways tonight: Republicans are reassured by President Trump's performance, by far his best night of the campaign. Vice President Joe Biden belittled and attacked the left flank of his party on health care when, after Trump said that Biden's embrace of the public option would destroy Medicare, Biden responded "He thinks he's running against somebody else. He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people I because I disagree with them"—meaning Biden's primary opponents from Democrats' progressive wing, which isn't all that thrilled with him in the first place.

And Trump finally—finally—had a conversation on issues and policy choices, which he clearly won. On energy issues, health care, the economy, criminal justice reform and more, Trump rang the bells that conservatives have been waiting for.

It was astonishing to see a completely different Trump on the stage, patiently waiting for Biden to finish answers and teeing up his own policy ideas and attacks. In the first debate, Trump never let Biden speak. And tonight, whether due to self-control or the muted mics, Trump let Biden unspool and then turned almost every exchange into a winning policy argument. When he was pounding the drum for reopening schools, for instance, I can imagine a great many moms and dads out there were pumping their fists right along with the President.

It is what Trump always needed: A choice on issues instead of a referendum on himself.

Unfortunately for Trump, this winning debate comes awfully late. Will it make a difference? Millions have voted already, and most everyone else has made up their minds. But I suspect senior citizens who usually vote Republican would've appreciated Trump's performance, college educated men in the suburbs will think Trump won, and I doubt many progressives were inspired by Biden's boasting of own healthcare plan.

I wonder what might've been had Trump turned in this performance in the first debate instead of the last. A "Never Trump" friend of mine texted me: "I hate him, but he was the clear winner."

Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.

SE Cupp: Biden channeled our horror over Trump's disastrous child-separation policy

SE Cupp
SE Cupp

Tonight Joe Biden reminded America what compassion and decency looks like.

While President Donald Trump attempted to smear Biden's family and raise conspiracy theories about his finances, Biden continually turned the questions on the issues away from his family and toward American families.

Voters don't care about Biden's son, or Wall Street fundraisers, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They care about keeping their families alive and safe from Covid and staying employed. Biden won the night for staying focused on the issues that matter most.

To me, the most affecting moment of the night was when Biden emotionally responded to Trump's horrific child-separation policy at our borders, a policy that has literally lost the parents of hundreds of detained children, with officials unable now to reunite families. His horror is our horror, and I'd bet that for suburban women, that really resonated.

SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of "SE Cupp Unfiltered."

Keith Boykin: About that Abraham Lincoln thing

Keith Boykin
Keith Boykin

To accept what President Donald Trump said at Thursday night's debate would require what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called a "willing suspension of disbelief."

Trump revised history to create an entirely fictional universe of misinformation on a number of issues, but nowhere was this more insidious than on the subject of race.

"Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump," he claimed, with the exception of maybe Abraham Lincoln. Of course, he entirely ignored Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

"I am the least racist person in this room," Trump also said. Never mind the Black journalist, Kristen Welker, who moderated the debate.

Trump has a decades-long history of racism, including the full-page ad he took out against the Central Park Five, five innocent Black boys falsely accused of assault and rape, and I wish Joe Biden would have spent more time reciting all of these instances (not just the Central Park one).

In contrast, Biden served his country under the first Black president at the same time Trump was leading a racist campaign challenging Barack Obama's birth certificate (a false claim Trump would only stand down from years later).

Some low-information voters may not know Trump's history, and he purposefully tried to muddy the waters. But with over 45 million votes already cast in the 2020 election, the pool of persuadable voters is shrinking. That means Biden won the debate.

Keith Boykin is a former White House aide to President Bill Clinton and a CNN political commentator.

Nayyera Haq: Trump played the old hits

Nayyera Haq
Nayyera Haq

Trump played this debate just like he did the ones in 2016, going on the attack and tossing red meat to his base. The problem is that this time around, he's been President for four years and has no defense for his performance on the coronavirus crisis and the post-pandemic economy.

For some reason, Trump thinks it's comforting to tell people who have lost loved ones to the virus and are keeping their children at home that getting the Covid-19 is no a big deal. The US is not being congratulated by foreign leaders because of Trump's handling of the pandemic, as Trump claimed. In fact, we are being banned from traveling to other countries . Trump claims a vaccine is coming by the end of the year, the same way he claims he has a health care plan, the same way he claims he will release his tax returns -- which gives us zero confidence that any of these claims of a cure are more than a pipe dream. Trump said, "It's going away" and "We're learning to live with it", while Biden spoke the truth --"People are learning to die with it."
The President was equally clueless about how the current economy feels to most Americans. Nearly 13 million people are unemployed, so talking about 401K's doing well isn't helpful to people who aren't able to pay rent -- let alone put away money for retirement. As Biden said, "People don't live by the stock market." The stock market doing well indicates a win for shareholders and companies, not for individuals trying to land their next gig.

In the face of the crisis facing American families right now, Trump didn't offer a plan or even words of comfort. Instead, he offered... a joke? It's unclear why he decided to say he was kidding about injecting bleach during a segment about saving lives, but he was very serious when he derided Biden for talking about families around the kitchen table. After this debate, Biden is the candidate viewers can believe actually understands the importance of family moments like dinnertime and can be a President who will take care of all of us like he would his own.

Nayyera Haq is a host of The Global Experience on SiriusXM Progress. She served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the State Department and a senior director in the White House. Follow her @nayyeroar.

Aaron David Miller: Without yelling and interruptions, we could actually hear the absurdity of Trump's views

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

I tweeted before tonight's debate that the odds of a more moderate reasonable Donald Trump showing up was about as favorable as the chance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. I was wrong. A much more controlled Trump did in fact show up. And indeed, tonight we actually did have something that resembled a real debate.

Biden won, in part, paradoxically, because in the absence of the yelling and interrupting during the first debate -- mostly on Trump's part -- we could actually listen to Trump's arguments and hear how untethered they were from reality. In contrast, on most issues, Biden simply made a lot more sense winning rounds on points, character and compassion.

Far from running out the clock, Biden was focused, strong, risk ready -- hammering and targeting Trump for his racism, abdication of leadership on Covid-19, immigrant children being separated from their parents and lack of a health care policy.

Trump's talking points were old and stale, targeting his base and not expanding it to reach out to independents who at this late stage might still be undecided.

Biden on several critical issues, especially race and Covid-19, squared himself to the camera and talked directly to the American public with empathy and compassion. Trump never did, partly because he lacks the capacity to do so.

Trump went to the gutter quickly -- launching charges based on unsubstantiated emails that Biden and family were enriching themselves from foreign countries and donors. Biden countered by hammering Trump on tax returns and his reported China bank account; but stayed out of the sewer by not making an issue of Trump's family.

After four years, Donald Trump demonstrated he could control his temper. Joe Biden demonstrated he could be President.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Frida Ghitis: Less noisy, but just as ugly

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

President Donald Trump controlled himself, and still he showed us who he is.

Sure, he didn't scream over everyone and interrupt constantly, as he did at the last debate. So, he cleared the lowest bar imaginable after having set the lowest expectations possible. But if he had been any other politician, we would be astonished at the unfathomable number of lies he told, the indefensible actions he defended and the preposterous statements he made.

From his first words about the pandemic, when he misleadingly tried to suggest he saved more than 2 million lives from coronavirus, Trump started lying to the American people. According to CNN's fact checker Daniel Dale, he lied even more this time than at the first debate, an almost impossible feat. Trump's strategy consisted of misrepresenting his own record and lying about Biden's plans, falsely claiming that his Democratic opponent would ban fracking and socialize health care, and then slandering Biden and his family. If we weren't used to this, we could hardly believe it.

Biden had a strong performance on many issues, from health care to immigration. Trump again said he'd have a great plan on health care, as he has been saying since 2015. Biden gave convincing details about his "Bidencare" proposal. But Biden was at his best when he was visibly incensed, infuriated, as were probably most Americans, hearing Trump defend his policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, a moral stain on America that will never completely wash away. Trump's callous response, "they're so well take care of."

Biden needed to avoid making any mistakes. Trump needed to turn the race around. Biden did what he needed to. Trump did not.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.

Julian Zelizer: A debate that didn't change the race

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

President Donald Trump is a weak incumbent. Former Vice President Joe Biden is a strong opponent. After Thursday night's debate, that is the bottom line.

Trump's goal in the debate was to undermine Biden's popularity and high approval ratings reflected in the latest polls. That's what he did to Hillary Clinton. So far, it has been more difficult with the former Vice President. It's not clear that Trump made any progress on this front even when bringing up Hunter Biden. On the other hand, Biden held firm and was able to offer a relatively strong performance. Though it wasn't a dramatic "win," and Trump was more restrained than in the first debate, tonight was probably enough to keep the horse race status quo—which automatically helps Biden.

In the end, however, the debates won't be nearly as important as voter turnout, disenfranchisement, intimidation and processing absentee ballots. These were the issues at the heart of the election before this debate and all of this remains the same after the debate. This is why Democrats are still very nervous despite Biden's double-digits lead in the polls. They simply don't know how this will play out when it comes to actual voting. Those are rational fears.

Once Americans turn off their television sets and shut down their smartphones, the ground game and the struggle to protect the decisions of voters will determine which way this election goes.

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party." Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer.

John Sutter: Don't let Trump fool you on climate change

John Sutter
John Sutter

Did you know carbon emissions can stick around in the atmosphere and oceans for 1,000 years? The pollution we're putting into the atmosphere today matters for that long.

I kept thinking about that as I listened to President Donald Trump make every attempt on Thursday to distract voters from the core truth of this race: Biden may not be a rock-star environmentalist, but he takes the climate crisis seriously and has an actual plan to reduce US fossil fuel pollution.

Trump, meanwhile, used media catnip -- small windows! bird-killing windmills! planting trees! -- in an attempt to distract voters from the fact that his policies are a disaster for the Earth and its future. That's a long-established tactic of the fossil fuel industry. Distract, obfuscate, confuse. Don't let it work on you.

Trump supports fossil fuels. He denies the essential and well-established realities of climate science. His record on the environment is abhorrent. He can talk about beautiful water and sparkly air all he damn well pleases. It doesn't change things.

This election will matter to your great-great-great-great grandchildren because it is an election about the climate emergency. And the chasm between the candidates could not be wider.

John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project's website.

Lanhee Chen: Trump landed enough punches to build some momentum

Lanhee Chen
Lanhee Chen

President Donald Trump closed well in 2016, and Thursday's debate may herald the start of a strong closing push for him in this year's campaign. The President was, for the most part, much more disciplined and on-message than he has been at any point in the last few weeks -- and certainly much more so than in the first debate. In a "change" election, like 2020 is shaping up to be, Trump managed to embrace the mantle of the disruptor again, even though he's the incumbent president. His indictment of Biden as a politician who's been in office for 47 years but accomplished little during that time continued to be his most effective sustained line of attack.

Also impactful was Trump's effort to paint Biden as an extreme liberal on climate and energy issues. The exchange the two had on fracking and, separately, on how each would deal with the future of fossil fuel use, reflect where the modern Democratic Party may be out of touch with many voters in parts of the country where the extraction economy remains significant. More than a policy debate, these exchanges could have electoral consequences in crucial battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Trump did what he needed to do tonight. It wasn't a perfect debate, but he landed enough punches to give himself some momentum going into the final sprint to Election Day.

Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and Director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. He served as policy director to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser to Marco Rubio's campaign in 2016.

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