Presidential Debate: Not a Game-Changer, But a Better Night for Everyone

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump at the second 2020 presidential campaign debate in Nashville, Tenn., October 22, 2020. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Thursday’s debate between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden is probably what everyone expected the first debate would be like, instead of the discordant, crosstalk-filled food-fight we endured a few weeks ago. Compared to the first debate, this was Lincoln and Douglas. Okay, maybe more like Statler and Waldorf. But it was much better for everyone: better for Trump, better for Biden, and better for the country.

An inability to interrupt Biden actually did the president some good. The restriction gave Biden the time and room to make some of his own gaffes, and Trump had to actually slow down and make an argument during his turn, instead of just hectoring, heckling, and badgering Biden throughout both turns.

Trump scored his most effective criticism when he asked Biden why he never enacted all of his grandiose plans during his previous 47 years in the Senate and vice presidency. “You keep talking about all these things you were going to do but you were there just a few short years ago. You know, Joe, I ran because of you.” When Biden said he wanted to go further with criminal justice reform, Trump kept hammering: “Why didn’t you do it in the eight years you were there?”

This debate, with a clear contrast on policies and almost no incomprehensible crosstalk, will do more good for Trump, which makes his motormouth aggression in the first debate a glaring unforced error, along with his refusal to participate in a virtual debate. It’s unlikely a third debate will occur, and that’s unfortunate for the Trump campaign.

At one point early in the evening, moderator Kristen Welker asked Biden, “do you want to respond to that?” And Biden answered, “no.” If the Democratic nominee were a football team, he would line up in the victory formation and take a knee every play. Biden is convinced he has the race effectively won, and simply wants to run out the clock and avoid making mistakes. (If Trump surprises everyone and defies the polls, Biden’s closing strategy will be seen as an epic miscalculation.)

Biden made no fatal errors – although his comments about “I would transition from the oil industry, yes” will soon appear in Trump ads in Pennsylvania — and he once again didn’t seem senile or mentally incapable of handling the presidency, although he started to seem strained near the end. But he had his share of weird moments. He called the Proud Boys group the “Poor boys.” At one point, while scoffing about Trump’s summits with Kim Jong Un, Biden said “we had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe.” Did we?

My “c’mon” counter broke after the first thousand.

Kristen Welker revealed that the secret to being a good moderator is to not be noticed – get the topics and questions out there quickly, and let the candidates set the course of the conversation.

If you watched every Democratic primary debate, you watched 30 hours and 45 minutes of Democratic candidates debating; we’ve now watched another three hours of Trump and Biden debating and an hour and a half of Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. Add it up, that’s 35 hours and 15 minutes, or nearly a day and a half of our lives that we will never get back.

By and large, these have not been good debates. The candidates offered mostly vague, unrealistic answers to complicated problems, generic talking points, and canned one-liners. The selection of topics was predictable and, in retrospect, not all that useful or relevant for showcasing how the candidates would actually tackle tough decisions. The coronavirus wasn’t mentioned in a Democratic primary debate until February 25, and then only briefly; the pandemic wasn’t a topic until the final Biden-Sanders debate March 15. We are not well served by the current form of televised presidential candidate debates, and the networks, the parties, the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates should think long and hard about how to make them better and more informative before the 2024 cycle begins.

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