With just 12 days to go before the election, the meet-up in Nashville was a far cry from the train wreck that was last month’s first debate. Yet, for all the muted microphone hype and anticipation, the two septuagenarians battled in a tepid encounter that probably didn’t change a single voter’s mind at a time when more 40 million Americans have already cast their ballots.
Just before the candidates strolled onstage, moderator and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker prophesied a “really robust discussion” after greeting the respective families and scant guests in the Belmont University auditorium. 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 a bitterly contested campaign.
Trying to hold the boys to their best behavior and time limit, Welker 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 president was all about the coronavirus and the incumbent.
“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 Trump 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 onstage in a black mask that he took off as he approached the podium, while the president entered with a scowl on his face. When Biden told Trump that we ought to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” in managing the pandemic and the economy, the die was cast – even as the duo literally argued over Trump’s widely disputed and oft-repeated assertion he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Similar to the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles NFL game being broadcast at the same time on Fox, the animosity between the two was palpable through the TV screen.
Trying his best 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 September 29. Yet, Trump is Trump, and within 20 minutes the placid façade began to crack and crumble as Biden took a few solid swipes.
The media narrative might focus on Trump being more disciplined than last time, but 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, 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 out 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 an 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, at least as much as she could. However, Trump did try at points to talk over her, even as he offered some praise when he told her, “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 needed only to do no harm – which 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 burn than usual for Trump. But it was also a confirmation that old rabid 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 murderer would come in, a rapist would come in” when discussing immigration.
In this made for TV event, those hoping for a TKO were sadly disappointed. Trump was much better in this debate than last time, but Biden was also at the top of his game. So maybe call it a draw.
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.