From the moment the two septuagenarian leading men stepped onto the stage, the contrast between them leaped off the screen: US President Donald Trump in his trademark red tie, his Democratic challenger Biden in electric blue. Trump maskless, Biden removing a black mask from his face as he strode towards his lectern.
And for the next 90 minutes that sense of contrast persisted, not only stylistically but in the candidates’ approach to the issues that confront the nation. Unlike the previous presidential debate, in which policy discussions were overshadowed by the interplay of personalities, this follow-up encounter allowed for a more serious, at times even thoughtful, tone. Much of this improvement can be attributed to Kristen Welker of broadcaster NBC News, who demonstrated that the job of moderating a presidential debate may be difficult but it is not impossible.
For the first half hour, it appeared that Trump had heard the criticism of his performance in the first debate. With surprising consistency, he reined in the theatrics and held his tongue while his opponent spoke, choosing to honour the same rules that he had previously run roughshod over. This approach made for a much more edifying experience for viewers.
Yet as the debate progressed, Trump increasingly found himself mired in the muddy waters of right-wing conspiracy theories, invoking names and incidents that make sense only to those who closely follow Fox News on TV. “Phony witch hunt – 18 angry Democrats – New York City is a ghost town.” These tag lines may work fine at a Trump rally but not so much for the nation as a whole. Furthermore, when he gets worked up, as he inevitably does on such topics, Trump becomes a caricature of himself, like actor Alec Baldwin doing a Donald Trump imitation.
Trump offered no good defence on a number of issues he ought to have been prepared for: his administration’s pandemic response, conflicts of interest with Trump’s businesses, unreleased tax returns, cruelty at the border, racial insensitivity, environmental devastation. Instead, the president made a misguided effort to drum up a scandal involving the Biden family, an effort that only confused anyone not steeped in the arcana of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Biden, on the other hand, tended to employ accessible, common-sense language, frequently directing his comments at the viewers. He did an excellent job signalling that he would approach the presidency as a healer. “I don’t see red states and blue states,” Biden said more than once during the debate. This was a smart move because it plays into the sense of decency upon which the former vice president has staked his candidacy. Inclusive language is something Americans do not hear from the White House much these days, so it comes across as a breath of fresh air.
Over the years Biden has displayed an emotional authenticity that serves him well as a communicator. A key moment in this debate was Biden’s heartfelt expression of revulsion over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Many politicians delivering such a speech would sound mawkish and unconvincing; Biden can pull it off because he is sincere.
As in previous debates and town halls, Biden showed a mastery of policy details, giving him an advantage that Trump will always lack. It is clear that Biden grasps the specific requirements of being a chief executive, that he understands and cares about the issues he will be dealing with in the Oval Office. There has not been much talk in this election about the value of technocratic efficiency, but Biden reminds us that such things matter if the country is to properly function.
Although Biden occasionally lost acuity and stuttered at times, he had a strong debate overall. Most importantly, Biden managed to get his end-of-the-campaign message across, delivering a closing argument that is likely to resonate with many Americans. “You know who I am, you know who he is,” Biden said, speaking right to the tens of millions of viewers watching at home. “Look at us closely.”
In the final debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, that is exactly what voters were able to do.