Thanks to new rules and deft moderating by Kristen Welker, the second presidential debate was nowhere near the debacle of the first, but it still did little to enlighten viewers about the policies and programs each candidate would take into his presidency next year. Like tigers, Trump hasn’t changed his stripes; like old dogs, Biden hasn’t learned new tricks.
A CNN Instant Poll showed that 53 per cent of voters who watched the debate saw the Democratic candidate as the winner and 39 per cent gave it to Trump. Nearly three-quarters saw Biden’s criticisms of Trump as largely fair, and respondents were split evenly over whether Trump’s attacks on Biden were fair.
Trump, forced to be better behaved, still avoided substantive responses in favour of innuendos about the Biden family, distortions of Biden’s political legacy, and lies about Biden’s election policies. He spent much time highlighting what Biden didn’t do during his eight years as vice-president — and some of those blows may well have landed, especially as Biden missed a few chances to highlight Trump’s own failures.
This debate revealed yet again the limits of Trump’s interest in and commitment to the issues that concern most voters, his lack of understanding of their daily lives, his inability to move beyond his campaign-style messaging, and his hyper-partisan view of the United States and the world beyond.
Biden showed up as the same candidate from the first debate. He didn’t always succeed in demonstrating the depth and breadth of his election policies and their relevance to voters. But he generally managed to communicate effectively using lines that carried zing and showed an understanding of voters’ needs, while displaying his character and humanity.
The debate is likely to have only reinforced the choices of already committed voters. It certainly had no practical impact on the forty-seven million who have already cast their ballots. Trailing in the national polls and with much of the early voting appearing to favour his opponent, Trump needed to throw the debating equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. He didn’t. And Biden needed only to avoid dropping the ball and to run out the clock, which he did.
On the pandemic, Trump wanted to blame everyone but himself for what he continues to see as a China-instigated blow to his raison d’être and best campaign plank, the economy. Biden didn’t hit Trump hard enough on this: though he pointed out that the Senate Republicans’ refusal to pass the US$3 trillion economic recovery package means that people and businesses are going without essential financial support, he failed to highlight the fact that commercial enterprises, cities, states and the country can’t open for business while the virus remains essentially uncontrolled.
More than 7.7 million workers (with 6.9 million dependants) have lost not only their jobs but also their employer-provided health insurance at a time when they most need it. Trump has stopped saying he wants to abolish Obamacare and now claims he has essentially killed off Obamacare by getting rid of the tax penalties for individuals and businesses that don’t have or provide insurance cover. If the US Supreme Court strikes down the law, he says, there will be “brand new, beautiful healthcare.” Careful listeners will have caught his intriguing statement that “the Democrats might do this, unless we control the House” — yet another sign that he has no idea how to create a “beautiful” system.
When the debate turned to national security, Trump resorted to vindictive points about Hunter Biden’s business dealings with the Ukraine, to which Biden responded by attacking the president’s dealings with Russia and China. Biden did score the winning point with a succinct statement to camera — “This is not about his family or my family; it’s about your family” — but that was a segue from an important topic. The answers to questions on North Korea and nuclear armaments also went nowhere, and that was it for foreign policy and defence.
Biden’s strengths came to the fore on immigration and race. Trump is pathologically unable to express any support for Black Lives Matter, instead slamming Biden’s position on criminal justice reform way back in 1994. Biden’s policies on improving racial justice are comprehensive and therefore worthy of respect: he sees the importance of tackling the social determinants of disadvantage, including not just social justice but also housing, education and the ability to borrow money to start a business. He reiterated commitments on immigration and on delivering a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States at a very young age. Combined with Trump’s comment that it was “good” that young children were taken from their parents at the US border and kept in cages, this may help give a needed boost to Biden’s standing with Latino voters.
The final topic of the debate, climate change, is probably the most divisive among voters. Trump made it plain that jobs and the economy would beat out environmental protections every time (as exemplified by his administration’s push to undo a raft of Obama-era regulations), which might help him in states like Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
For his part, Biden has negotiated a set of national and international environmental policies designed to balance the concerns of his party’s left (the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders) and the more moderate Democrats. His blueprint inextricably links climate action and environmental justice with the needed economic revival, an approach that has received wide support and has been shown to deliver more jobs, faster economic growth, and more financial benefits for workers than Trump’s economic revival plan.
But most Americans are not across the fine details of Biden’s wide-ranging suite of policies, which made it easier for Trump to undermine his claims, as he did with casual references to Biden being a puppet of “AOC plus three” (conservative code for Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues in the House) and more pointed comments about Biden limiting his support for fracking and the oil industry.
At the end of the debate, as they have done from the beginning, the two candidates stood in stark contrast. Their differences were highlighted when they were invited to preview their inauguration speeches. Trump remained transactional, wedded to “making America great again” with economic and taxation measures; reminiscent of the dark tones of his 2017 inaugural speech, he warned of “sad days” ahead if his aims were thwarted. Biden offered themes of unity, hope over fear, and opportunity for all. •