From COVID-19 to “Come on, man!”: Six takeaways from the final presidential debate

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden engaged in more than 90 minutes of actual debate Thursday. It was civil, calm, sedate, substantive (at times) and, almost, even normal.

None of those words could be used to describe their first clash, in Cleveland. But Trump, chastened by Republicans for his over-aggressive performance last month, arrived in what was, for him, restrained fashion as he tried to reinvigorate his flagging campaign.

But his relatively subdued performance seemed unlikely to be enough to shift the trajectory of a race that has been unmoved by far larger world events.

Here are six takeaways from the final 2020 presidential debate.

They actually debated!

After the first debate debacle, the debate commission imposed a mute feature for the opening statements of both candidates for each segment. It helped. But Trump mostly muzzled his own impulse for interruption.

He verbally stopped himself short of directly discussing how Biden’s son Hunter exited the military. And he even praised Kristen Welker, the debate moderator from NBC who kept tight control on the proceedings, saying, “So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”

The lack of cross-talk allowed viewers to actually discern the differences between the two candidates, on the pandemic, on climate change, on systemic racism, on charting an economic recovery, on federal spending and on health care.

For Trump, who advisers believe needs the race to be a clear choice between himself and Biden, the set of contrasts came late — in only the final debate of three on the schedule, after he bulldozed through the first one and his contracting of the coronavirus set in motion the cancellation of the second one.

Not only is he behind in the polls now, but more than 48 million Americans have already cast their ballots.

Trump still didn’t have a compelling answer on COVID-19.

Biden, who walked onstage wearing a mask, delivered his closing argument at the very start. The coronavirus has killed more than 220,000 people in the United States. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said in his first opportunity to speak.

It was an echo of the case that Sen. Kamala Harris made in the opening moments of the vice presidential debate, and for which Trump had no more answers than Vice President Mike Pence did.

Trump claimed that models had predicted up to 2.2 million deaths (that was if the country did nothing), noting that it is in fact a “worldwide pandemic,” and arguing, accurately, that mortality rates have gone down.

“We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” Trump claimed. Hospitalizations and cases are actually on the rise.

Trump tried to draw upon his own hospitalization with the virus since the first debate, which set in motion the cancellation of the second debate. “I learned a lot. I learned a lot,” he said. But he spent part of the pre-debate week attacking the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Biden made his case on the virus this way: “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”

Biden made the “Come on, man!” case.

For all the talk leading up to 2020, especially among skittish Democrats, that Trump was a “Teflon Don,” the presidential candidate who has navigated deep into October as the front-runner with enviable approval ratings despite months of attacks and negative ads is, in fact, Biden.

For much of the race, his retort to Trump’s wild accusations of being a left-wing extremist has amounted to a “who-me?” shrug. “Do I look like a radical socialist?” Biden asked in one August speech. “I am the party,” he declared at the first debate.

On Thursday, Trump repeatedly sought to tar Biden by association, linking him to Harris’ position on health care in the primary, tagging him as being controlled by “AOC plus three,” a reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and some of her progressive House colleagues, and seeking to rope him to Sen. Bernie Sanders on health care, too.

So Biden deployed his “Come on, man!” strategy again.

“He’s very confused guy,” Biden said. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”

The Democratic nominee also turned directly to the viewers, urging them to rely on their own impressions after eight years as vice president: “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character.”

Just as he did in the primary, Biden has bet on himself, and on the unbelievability of Trump’s attacks on his character and his agenda. And so far, it has worked.

Trump landed his ‘all talk, no action’ punch …

This was the case so many Republicans have been desperately waiting for the president to make. And over and over on Thursday, Trump returned to it, attacking Biden as a politician who has been in and around Washington for nearly a half-century and whose promised changes should have been enacted decades ago.

“You keep talking about all these things you’re going to do,” Trump pressed. “Why didn’t you get it done?”

“All talk, no action,” he repeated.

Though Trump had also brought up Biden’s 47 years of public service in an attack at the first debate, Biden was uneven in his response Thursday. He even took the rare step of distancing himself from President Barack Obama over their inability to pass an immigration overhaul. “We made a mistake,” he said. “It took too long to get it right. I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States.”

Dave Kochel, a Republican strategist, said that “the ‘why didn’t you do it’ refrain was very strong.”

“After the first debate disaster,” he added, “Trump showed he could stand next to Biden and make the case.”

Of course, Trump has only prosecuted this case intermittently. And his ability to run as an outsider, which helped lift him through the 2016 primary and the general election, has plainly diminished now that he is, well, a politician and an incumbent with failed promises of his own.

Of Biden’s failings, Trump said pointedly, “I ran because of you.”

… but he also got lost in a cul-de-sac of obscurity.

Trump debated at times as if the tens of millions of Americans tuning in were as intimately familiar with the internet outrages that burn bright across the right-wing media ecosystem as he is.

He made references to names and numbers and moments that almost surely zoomed over the heads of viewers, from an indirect swipe at the husband of the governor of Michigan to a jab at the Obama administration for “selling pillows and sheets” to Ukraine to attacks on the Biden family’s business dealings, most of which lacked almost any discernible context.

“They took over the submarine port. You remember that very well,” Trump said at one point to Biden.

It did not appear Biden did.

Trump kept waving around noncontextualized references as if they were smoking guns, especially about Hunter Biden.

“Now with what came out today it’s even worse,” Trump said. ”All of the emails. The emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family.”

But the segment ended with nothing resembling a defining exchange.

It was a reminder of how different it is to run against Biden than Hillary Clinton. Four years ago, Trump had the benefit of decades of attacks on Clinton that had sunk in for voters. That is just not true of Biden.

“By focusing on these right-wing theories, Trump pandered to a base that doesn’t need persuading,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist, “and he whistled right past everyone else.”

They had surprisingly substantive disagreements.

The two candidates did engage in a substantive back and forth about how much of the nation’s economy and schools should be shuttered to contain the virus. Trump fiercely advocated reopening as much as possible as quickly as possible. Biden said that should happen only when it is actually safe.

“We’re learning to live with it,” Trump said, citing his own hospitalization and recovery.

“Learning to live with it?” Biden said incredulously. “Come on. We’re dying with it.”

Trump tried to dismiss Biden for mostly campaigning from home this spring and summer (“We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does”). He mocked the Plexiglas dividers that have emerged in restaurants in New York and other places to keep people socially distanced, dismissing the idea of diners sitting “in a cubicle wrapped around in plastic.”

“We can’t close up our nation,” he said. “Or we won’t have a nation.”

Biden argued for prioritizing public health, warning Americans of a “dark winter” approaching. “Shut down the virus, not the country,” he said, rattling off one of the evening’s scripted lines.

The candidates disagreed, civilly, on health care and the environment. Biden said he would push the nation to “transition from the oil industry” and end federal subsidies.

“That is a big statement,” Trump replied. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”

The Biden declaration won cheers among progressives but quick distancing from Democrats in energy-heavy states, such as Rep. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.

Overall, Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, said the debate was a draw.

“Both candidates came prepared not only in tone and tenor, but also substantively,” he said. “For Biden, a push is a win right now. Trump is the one who needed the knockout blow.”

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