Six Takeaways From the Final Presidential Debate

It was an actual debate with real disagreements. President Trump still struggled for an answer on the coronavirus and Joe Biden waved away character attacks with a “Come on, man!”

By Shane Goldmacher

President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. engaged in more than 90 minutes of actual debate on 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump mostly muzzled his own impulse for interruption.

He verbally stopped himself short of directly discussing how Mr. 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 Mr. Trump, who advisers believe needs the race to be a clear choice between himself and Mr. 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Biden said in his first opportunity to speak.

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

Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump claimed. Hospitalizations and cases are actually on the rise.

Mr. 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 S. Fauci.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Biden.

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

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

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

“He’s very confused guy,” Mr. 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, Mr. Biden has bet on himself, and on the unbelievability of Mr. 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, Mr. Trump returned to it, attacking Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump pressed. “Why didn’t you get it done?”

“All talk, no action,” he repeated.

Though Mr. Trump had also brought up Mr. Biden’s 47 years of public service in an attack at the first debate, Mr. Biden was uneven in his response on 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.”

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

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

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

Mr. 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.

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