It is finished. The final debate of 2020 is done. Donald Trump walked off his last debate stage on Thursday night, and soon the country will decide whether to let him keep his job or hand the presidency over to Joe Biden.
Both men were on better behavior than the last time they met, no doubt because they were under constant threat of being muted by the NBC moderator Kristen Welker, but also because both campaigns apparently believe the race is far from finished. Biden wants to solidify, if not widen, his lead while Trump had to go on offensive to avoid a crushing defeat. The result was a contentious but comparatively civil debate at a reasonable volume.
Biden has made his campaign about combating the coronavirus, and the first question gave him an opportunity to quickly make his case: “220,000 Americans dead,” he said a few minutes into the night. “If you hear nothing else, I say tonight, hear this.” According to the former vice president, Trump failed to prepare adequately in the early days of the pandemic and has continued to ignore the guidance of his own advisers. Biden reached into his pocket to pull out a face mask, faulting the president for not encouraging use of the protective material and promising that mask use could save as many as 100,000 additional lives.
“We’re about to go into a dark winter. A dark winter,” Biden said. “And he has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”
Unsurprisingly, the Trump forecast was completely different. “I don’t think we’re going to have a dark winter at all,” he predicted before promising that a vaccine was on the horizon. As he has done often in the past, Trump praised himself for his Jan. 31 decision to restrict travel to the U.S. from China, while noting that Biden criticized the move at the time. The president also insisted that his opponent would institute lockdowns at mass scale.
Trump offered himself and his own bout with COVID-19 as an example. He was sick, he recovered, and so will the rest of the nation. “I say we’re learning to live with it,” Trump said of the interim between now and a safe vaccine. “We have no choice. We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does.”
Learning to live with it? Biden shot back. “We are dying from it.” He also warned, improbably, that another 200,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 before the end of this year. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” he added. “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”
While the last debate was the final opportunity for Biden to level his pandemic attacks against the president in person, it was the first chance for Trump to force the former vice president to address new allegations that his son took money from foreign interests – and that some of that money may have been earmarked for Biden himself.
Curiously enough, Biden broached the topic first. “Well, I shouldn’t,” he said, trailing off during an answer about foreign meddling in American elections. “Well, I will,” he continued. “His buddy Rudy Giuliani. He’s being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that is Russian, that is not true.”
He was referring to how the president’s lawyer tried digging up dirt on his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, an episode that ultimately ended in Trump’s impeachment. Trump took the opening and ran with it, telling the audience about recent reporting by the New York Post that offered a salacious look into purported Biden family business dealings in Ukraine and China, details the paper said were obtained from a missing laptop that Hunter Biden took in for repairs and never reclaimed.
The most troublesome nugget gleaned from the emails is a May 13, 2017, missive to Hunter Biden from one of his business partners discussing terms of the consulting firm’s prospective involvement in a Chinese-owned energy company. This email outlines “expectations” of the alleged deal, including “renumeration packages” that envision $850,000 going to Hunter Biden, along with a 20% equity share in the joint venture. Another cryptic reference mentions “10 held by H for the big guy” and the same figure for Joe Biden’s brother Jim. Whether this means 10% or $10,000 – or whether anything like this really happened – is unknown at this point, but Trump figured the story needed wider dissemination.
“You're the ‘big man,’ I think,” Trump told Biden, garbling the shorthand used to possibly refer to Hunter’s father in the emails. “Your son said we have to give 10% to the 'big man.' Joe, what's that all about? It's terrible.”
While the president has tried to force the issue in the last week, few major media outlets have run with the story other than to disparage it.
“They were paying you a lot of money and they probably still are,” Trump said at one point before adding during another exchange that “regardless of me, I think you have to clean it up and talk to the American people. Maybe you can do it right now.”
“I haven’t taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden responded, noting that he had released 22 years of tax returns and challenging Trump to do the same. “Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption.”
Republicans and Democrats both came away from the exchange convinced they had put points on the board. Their candidates ran rehearsed plays with expected success. But the night was not entirely scripted, and that was to the benefit of the incumbent who earned his job four years ago by winning over blue-collar voters in the Midwest with promises of rebuilding the country’s manufacturing base and putting coal miners back to work.
Biden’s shifting positions on fracking and prior support for the Green New Deal during the Democratic primary left him vulnerable to Trump’s attacks. Instead of explaining the reasons behind his flip-flop, Biden went a step further and pledged to eventually shut down the oil industry entirely -- a promise that his campaign immediately tried to walk back by insisting the former vice president only meant an end to oil subsidies.
Trump accused Biden of backing a far-left environmental agenda, highlighting his previous pledges to ban fracking. “He was against fracking,” Trump said. “He said it … until he got the nomination, went to Pennsylvania, then he said – but you know what Pennsylvania? He’ll be against it pretty soon because his party is totally against it.”
Biden took exception to the characterization and offered up a more nuanced position than the ban on fracking he had promised to embrace during an early primary debate in Detroit. “Fracking on federal land -- I said no fracking and/or oil on federal land,” he countered. “Show the tape,” he challenged. “Put it on your website.”
It was enough to send Trump World scurrying, and before the end of the night Republicans were sharing a clip of Biden saying he would eliminate fracking and reliance on subsidies for fossil fuels. The exchange led to one of the few unscripted moments for the president during the 90-minute face-off. Trump was pressing Biden on whether he would shut down the oil industry, and the Democratic nominee seemed to fall right into the trap.
“I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” Biden responded.
“He is going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump responded. “Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Biden went on the offensive by making the most of recent reports that the government had not reunited more than 545 children who had been separated from their parents while entering the U.S. illegally during the mass caravans across the southern border during the first few years of Trump’s presidency.
Trump insisted that federal officials were trying to reunite the children and parents but that some were likely the victims of coyotes -- smugglers who often use children to exploit asylum laws. The president then claimed the children were “so well taken care of” in the U.S. immigration system under his watch – a risky rebuttal to the question of why his administration was keeping the children in “cages” while their asylum status was assessed.
It was the Obama administration, Trump insisted, that built the “cages” -- metal chain-link holding pens. “Who built the cages, Joe?” he pressed.
But numerous media exposes, as well as internal government inspector general investigations, have found that many border processing and detention facilities were over-crowded and under-resourced.
“It’s not coyotes – [they] didn’t bring them over,” Biden claimed. “Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents, and it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Biden pledged to make rolling back Trump’s strict immigration policies an early priority of his presidency. “Within 100 days,” he promised, “I’m going to send to the United States Congress a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people.”
Biden had admitted, however, that record deportations during the Obama administration was a “mistake,” pointing out that he was only vice president at the time but acknowledging that the immigration policy “took too long to get it right.”
The back-and-forth was contentious but relatively controlled throughout the night. Trump was characteristically caustic. Biden, meanwhile, was well-rehearsed and came prepared with an arsenal of canned but effective one-liners at the ready. Undecided voters watching the contest, however, were encouraged by the relative civility while remaining deeply disheartened about having to choose between two candidates they cast as uninspiring and deeply flawed elderly men.
Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP polling expert, convened a group of undecided voters in key battleground states to watch the more subdued tete-a-tete and provide instant post-debate analysis.
The focus group gave Trump positive marks for his restraint but few were swayed strongly for either side. Overall, the debate left them still yearning for concrete plans on critical issues facing the country -- from recovering from the coronavirus to ending racial divisions and lowering health care costs.
“I was absolutely looking for specifics,” said a woman named Jennifer. “I wanted to hear, especially from Joe Biden, information about what he actually plans to do for people … and I didn’t hear anything. All I heard was flip-flopping on the issues. I don’t know his position on fracking. I don’t know his position on oil … and that makes me uncomfortable.”
Luntz asked the participants whether they viewed the election contest as a choice between character vs. policies. By that metric, Biden generally was given higher marks for moral character, while Trump’s policies rated higher than the challenger’s – with some worrying aloud that Biden would lead the country on a path to socialism.
Prior to recent revelations about the Biden family’s business dealings abroad, several of the voters said they had thought the election was coming down to that stark choice, but the late-breaking news about Hunter Biden’s questionable business activities -- and whether they financially benefited Joe Biden -- were shifting their views.
“We talk about all these things about lying and cheating, and here’s something that’s popped up – is it true or is it not true?” said a voter identified as John. “I want to know. The fact that [Biden] doesn’t want to answer it scares me, and it’s one of the biggest issues I’m tracking.”
John and several other members of the panel expressed deep concern that the mainstream media is not reporting on Hunter Biden’s business dealings and the efforts Facebook and Twitter took to try to censor the story.
“It scares me that that the media refuses to talk about it, and it gets shut down on Facebook and Twitter,” he said.
A participant named Jill wholeheartedly agreed, arguing that Biden has cast the election as a battle for the “soul of the country” and is “relying on his character for votes,” yet “this would make the normal, reasonable person question his character.”
“If it were about Trump, they would be all over this. The media would be all over this,” she added. “That is what is concerning as well.”
Despite their interest in the story, a lopsided majority of voters in the focus group said they were entirely uninspired by the candidates, with several arguing that being forced to choose between the two men was alienating them from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“Both of them have turned me off to not really like both parties,” an African American voter named James concluded. “I really don’t have a voice in this political dialogue. … I don’t see a candidate that represents me or what I value.”
For now, Biden and Trump are the only options. Either way, Thursday was the end of an era. The populist will never return to the debate stage where he first made a lasting political name for himself by dispatching a crowd of more qualified Republicans before finishing off Hillary Clinton. Whether his career in politics continues may very well depend on how voters in key states judge his final performance.