Former Vice President Joe Biden had one job in tonight’s final presidential debate: tread water. Don't get rattled. If President Trump talks about your son, Hunter, as if he were an influence peddler or a Chinese Communist Party crony, take a breath and don’t take the bait. And definitely don’t get so angry that you provide Trump an opening to expand upon the attacks. For the most part, the long-time politician got the job done.
Of course, just because Biden saved himself from getting goaded into a long discussion about his son’s alleged business dealings doesn’t mean Trump wouldn’t return to the subject on a few occasions during the 90-minute debate. Trump continues to hope that Hunter Biden’s supposed business dealings will do what Hilary Clinton’s email problem did in 2016: tarnish the opponent’s credibility and reputation. Trump will spend the next week and a half painting Joe Biden as a corrupt politician who used his public office to enrich his own family. The President’s campaign team trotted Hunter Biden’s former business partner out in front of the cameras before the debate even started, who presented himself as a character witness to the Biden family’s unethical practices. And yet despite the effort, Trump’s strategy hasn’t worked out so far – mainly because there are so many questions surrounding the allegations, like whether any of them are indeed real.
Zoomed out, the final presidential debate could actually be called a debate. While the candidates were feisty and attacked each other over policy differences (as you might expect, Trump did most of the attacking), Americans tuning in could hear complete sentences instead of the constant interruptions that filled up the first debate last month. On everything from the coronavirus and race in America to North Korea and climate change, Trump and Biden did what you might expect from two people running for the most powerful office on the planet.
Covid-19 was the first topic up for discussion – and as he did during the first debate, Trump tried to explain away his administration’s pathetically dismal response to the virus by casting the blame on China. He reminded voters that fewer Americans have died from Covid-19 than the 2.2 million who were projected to perish. He insisted ‘more and more people are getting better’ and that leaders around the world have congratulated for a job well done. ‘We’re rounding the corner,’ Trump said. But if Democrats like Joe win the election, Trump continued, the country will shut down; businesses will fail; suicides and substance abuse will spike as people lose their jobs; and America as it exists will effectively be gone.
In his response, Biden stuck with the numbers. Nearly 220,000 Americans have died from the disease, he told the audience. ‘Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America.’ As for what a President Biden would do differently? Bluntly put, he would base his policy on the kind of science that Dr Anthony Fauci follows: mask wearing, social distancing, deep research about vaccines. Biden’s pitch: ‘I will take care of this.’
Immigration, the third-rail of American politics, was perhaps the subject that produced the most passion from both candidates. Trump, whose first run for the presidency four years ago was built on a strict anti-immigration platform, touted his magnificent border wall between the US and Mexico and explicitly referenced the end of the catch-and-release policy. Biden promised a comprehensive immigration bill and citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in his first 100 days in office. At the same time, the former Veep condemned Trump for separating children from their parents at the southern border as a way to deter additional families from making the journey. Separation ‘violates every notion of who we are as a nation,’ Biden declared. ‘It’s criminal’.
Both candidates got their punches in. Biden was most effective during the debate’s first 15 minutes, when he lumped Trump in with the worst public health crisis America has faced in a century. Trump hit Biden hard on his support for tough anti-crime bills in the 1980s and early 1990s that had a disproportionate impact on the African American community and repeatedly asked Biden why he never bothered to change the laws during his eight years as Vice President.
Despite the performances, one must ask the question: with less than two weeks left until election day, will this debate even matter? Tens of millions of Americans have already cast their ballots by mail. Tens of millions more have made up their minds. Are there really any Americans out there who are still having a hard time choosing between Donald Trump and Joe Biden? And if so, did this debate help them make a decision?