In the last debate of likely the last campaign of their respective presidential ambitions, Joe Biden and Donald Trump offered few surprises tonight, which may have been the biggest surprise of all.
With just 12-days to go before the election, this meet-up in Nashville was a far cry from the train wreck of the first debate last month. Yet, for all the muted microphone hype and anticipation, in the end, the two septuagenarians and tonight’s tepid event probably didn’t change a single voters’ mind in a nation where more 40 million have already cast their ballots.
Just before the candidates strolled on stage, moderator and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Walker prophesied a “really robust discussion” after greeting the respective families and scant guests. For the most part, with Biden passionately slamming Trump’s racism and his “dog whistle about as big as a foghorn,” that was true, but there was little new in the last stretch of the bitterly contested campaign.
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Additionally, trying to hold the boys to their best behavior and time, Walker may have had a series of subjects on her agenda. In the end, this second meet-up of the ex-vice-president and the Celebrity Apprentice host was all about the coronavirus and the incumbent, just like the election.
“We’re learning to live with it,” Trump said of the virus that has killed more than 222,000 Americans and seen more than 8.3 million confirmed cases, including the incumbent himself. Biden replied with the tragic line of the night: “People are learning to die with it.”
In fact, with a lot of the same old same old talking points we’ve heard too many times before, the tone and drama was set before anyone said a word.
Biden walked on stage in a black mask that he took off as he approached the podium and the former real estate developer entered with a scowl on his face. When Biden, in the first 30 minutes, told Trump that we ought to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” on managing the pandemic and the economy, the die was cast – even if you count the duo literally arguing over Abraham Lincoln.
Similar to the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles NFL game being broadcast on Fox, the animosity between the two men was palpable through the TV screen.
Trying his best to be to do an impersonation of a comforter-in-chief, the choreographed Trump was initially much more low energy than his chaotic performance at the first debate on September 29. Yet, Trump is Trump, and within 20 minutes the placid façade began to crack and crumbled as Biden took a few solid swipes.
The reality is if the media narrative is going to be that Trump was more disciplined, let’s remember what a low bar that is for the current president. Trump tried to be more disciplined in not interrupting as he did last time, sure, but he still offered a plethora of mistruths and non sequiturs galore.
In that context, Biden’s “stay out of sight” strategy this week seemed to push Trump to go further off the leash as he looked for a foe anywhere he could find one. Never hesitant to go low, Trump dropped footage earlier in the day of his 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl that he walked out of earlier this week.
Strutting a gimmick reminiscent of the 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton, the incumbent also invited the alleged former business partner of Hunter Biden to the Nashville gathering in a duel attempt to draw blood and get under Biden’s skin. Coached to keep his cool, Biden rebuffed the smearing of his son and flipped the script to attack Trump on recent revelations of secret bank accounts in China.
Having been personally attacked and maligned by Trump relentlessly the past few days, Welker kept her cool too, as much as she could. However, Trump did try at points to talk over her, albeit he did offer some praise. “I respect very much how you are handling this.”
Holding a double-digit lead in most national polls and across a number of battleground states, Biden’s only necessary move on Thursday was to do no harm – which is he succeed at by playing the policy wonk and empathy cards. Yes, there were missed opportunities. When Trump chanted that Biden was “all talk and no action,” Biden could have reminded his rival that he has been president the past four years.
No one mentioned Borat, but mutually baiting with salvos of overseas bank accounts, “taxpayer’s money,” overseas money, “socialized medicine,” family corruption, cutting social security and other topics, the debate was a slower burnout than usual for Trump, for sure. But it was also a confirmation that old rapid dogs won’t learn new tricks for long.
Going full circle from the start of his first presidential bid to the near end of his latest one, Trump plagiarized his own campaign kick-off speech from 2015 by tossing around lines like “a murder would come in, a rapist would come in” when discussing immigration.
In this made for TV event, if you were hoping for a TKO, you were sadly disappointed tonight. Trump did much better at this debate, and it might even have been a draw, but Biden also was at the top of his game.
What Donald Trump did have Thursday was to insist “I’m not a typical politician, that’s why I got elected.” Based on tonight’s performance, that may be why he could lose, too.