On Thursday evening, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met in Nashville for the last presidential debate of the year, facing off less than two weeks before Election Day. Although the Commission on Presidential Debates did not take any of Blavity’s suggestions for moderator, NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker appeared to be a solid choice to run the final debate of the year.
The debate was organized around six broad topics: COVID-19, national security, American families. race in America, climate change, and leadership. Here are eight takeaways from the evening:
1. Welker kept everyone on task
After Chris Wallace completely lost control of the first presidential debate and Susan Page didn’t do much better during the vice presidential showdown, there was a lot of pressure on Welker to keep control of the conversation, and she stepped up to the challenge. Welker asked specific, cutting questions to both candidates and mainly kept them on topic and on time.
Welker even commanded respect from Trump. The President, who had called Welker a “terrible & unfair” reporter days before the debate, paused in the middle of one of his answers to tell Welker “I respect very much the way you're handling this.”
2. Trump had a better night than usual
President Trump set a very low bar for himself with his unhinged first debate performance and his defensive town hall performances. But Trump actually respected the rules a bit — the mute button that was added for this debate didn’t need to be used much — and had his talking points more ready that he has in the past. Biden, of course, was no pushover, calling “malarkey” several times while landing some tough blows against Trump and presenting his own vision for the future. But Trump did not suffer a knockout blow like many Democrats had hoped for.
3. COVID-19 is still Trump's big weakness
It’s hard to get past a disaster that has cost 220,000 American lives and could cost hundreds of thousands more. Trump still doesn’t have strong answers for his administration’s horrible performance containing COVID-19 and his own recklessness in undermining his own team of scientists and experts. At best, Trump has promises – rolling out a vaccine, opening up the country again – that ring hollow as COVID cases spike in a number of states and the death toll continues to rise. Biden drove the point home early.
“If you hear nothing else I say tonight hear this,” said the former Vice President. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
4. Healthcare is also a problem for the president
Obamacare has grown more popular over time, and access to healthcare is particularly important in the middle of a pandemic. Trump’s strategy of getting rid of Obamacare, either through legislation in a second term or via the Supreme Court after Amy Coney Barrett, an opponent of the law, gets confirmed by the Senate, is a bad idea in many people’s eyes.
This is especially true since Trump has offered no plan to replace the law, despite promising throughout his presidency to introduce “brand new beautiful healthcare” as he called it last night. Biden, meanwhile, laid out his vision for what he’s labeled “Bidencare,” which is largely a revival of Obamacare with the addition of a “public option” of government-provided health insurance.
5. The debate finally focused on race in America
After the first debate hardly focused on race issues despite the topic being on the agenda, this final debate did a much better job of putting both candidates on the spot concerning race in America. Welker’s question about “the talk” Black parents have with their children was well crafted and set the stage for an important conversation and examination of the two candidates. Biden was challenged by both Trump and the moderator for his support for tough on crime legislation. The former Vice President was clearer than he’s been before that such legislation “was a mistake” and pledged to deal with systemic racism.
Trump, meanwhile, revived his strategy of arguing that he’s done more for the Black community than anyone since Abraham Lincoln. As Blavity previously reported, Trump has been able to make some progress particularly with Black men including 50 Cent.
6. The candidates debated just how racist Trump really is
The race discussion was important, but also brought out some of the most quotable moments of the night.
“I’m the least racist person in this room,” said Trump at one point to the Black woman from Philly who was moderating the debate.
"Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist Presidents we've had in modern history," quipped Biden later with sarcasm that seemed to go over Trump’s head. Though, given Lincoln’s own racist views, Trump may be closer to Lincoln than either candidate realizes.
7. Trump is still trying to stir up a scandal against Biden
Focusing on a scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails worked for Trump in the 2016 election and now, President Trump is hoping to use the same strategy against Biden this year, attacking Biden’s son over disputed and unverified reports of messages concerning the younger Biden’s international business deals.
The problem for Trump is that the situation is not the same. This time around, the emails and the “laptop from hell,” as Trump called it, have not been authenticated, the accusations are focused on the candidate’s son rather than the actual candidate, and the story being told is complicated and hard to follow. It’s unclear of what Trump is accusing Biden of doing.
Suggesting Biden made money through shady methods involving countries like Russia, Ukraine and China is also a very dangerous strategy for Trump given his many sketchy business deals in general and his particular scandals involving a Russia collusion, Ukraine phone calls for which he was impeached and a Chinese bank account, which Trump tried to explain away rather than deny during the debate.
8. Overall, Trump attacked while Biden empathized
Trump decided to run as the challenger, not the incumbent, during this debate. The current president spent much of the debate attacking Joe Biden’s family and criticizing the Obama administration’s record. He questioned the former Vice President for not doing more on criminal justice reform and immigration, and accused him of building the “cages” that are housing undocumented immigrant children.
Meanwhile, Biden painted a clearer picture than before of what his presidency would look like. He described his vision for Bidencare, proposed a $15 minimum wage, pledged to phase out the oil industry, and discussed his plans for fighting COVID-19.
As usual, Biden relied on empathy to appeal directly to the American people. Having fought back against multiple attacks against his son Hunter and other relatives, Biden attempted to bring the debate back into focus, repeatedly talking to people sitting around the "kitchen table" at home. Turning away from Trump to look directly into the camera, Biden appealed to the American people that “It's not about his family and my family. It's about your family, and your family is hurting badly."
Trump, meanwhile, at one point said that children being detained in cages were being “so well taken care of,” indicating that empathy is not one of the current president’s strengths.
Biden and Trump supporters probably each found things to be happy with from Thursday night's debate. Although Election Day is less than two weeks away, there will probably be plenty of drama between now and November 3.