Analysis: A quieter debate provides a closer look at candidates on a variety of topics as the election approaches.
From the moment the two Septuagenarian leading actors took the stage, the contrast between them jumped from the screen: US President Donald Trump in his red tie, his Democratic challenger Biden in electric blue. Trump maskless, Biden removed a black mask from his face as he walked to his lectern.
And for the next 90 minutes, that sense of contrast persisted, not just stylistically, but in the candidates’ approach to the problems the nation is facing. In contrast to the previous presidential debate, in which political discussions were overshadowed by the interplay of personalities, this follow-up meeting enabled a more serious, sometimes even thoughtful tone. Much of this improvement can be attributed to NBC News’s Kristen Welker, who has shown that moderating a presidential debate is difficult, but not impossible.
Moderator Kristen Welker kept the candidates largely under control during the debate [Jim Watson / AFP]For the first half hour, Trump seemed to have heard criticism of his performance in the first debate. With surprising consistency, he reined in the theater and held his tongue while his opponent spoke, choosing to obey the same rules that he had previously grossly overridden. This approach made for a much more edifying experience for the audience.
⚡️ Check out some of the key moments from the U.S. President’s recent debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Deb # Debates2020 https://t.co/n3vI5HP91u
– Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 23, 2020
However, as the debate progressed, Trump found himself increasingly in the muddy waters of right-wing conspiracy theories, invoking names and incidents that only make sense to those who closely watch Fox News on television. “Wrong Witch Hunt – 18 Disgruntled Democrats – New York City is a ghost town.” These slogans might work well on a Trump rally, but not so much for the nation as a whole. When he gets upset about it, as he inevitably does on issues like this, Trump becomes a caricature of himself, like actor Alec Baldwin doing a Donald Trump imitation.
Trump didn’t provide a good defense on a number of issues that he should have been prepared for: his administration’s pandemic, conflicts of interest with Trump’s company, unpublished tax returns, border cruelty, racial insensitivity, environmental degradation. Instead, the president made a misguided effort to spark a scandal involving the Biden family that only confused someone who was not immersed in the arcana of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Donald Trump repeatedly labeled Biden as corrupt during the debate [Jim Bourg/Reuters/Pool]Biden, on the other hand, tended to use accessible, sensible language and often directed his comments to viewers. He did an excellent job signaling that he would approach the presidency as a healer. “I don’t see any red and blue states,” Biden said more than once during the debate. This was a wise move as it goes into the sense of the propriety the former vice president put his candidacy on. Inclusive language is something Americans don’t hear much from the White House these days, so it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Over the years, Biden has shown an emotional authenticity that serves him well as a communicator. A pivotal moment in this debate was Biden’s heartfelt expression of distaste for the Trump administration’s policy of segregating immigrant children on the U.S.-Mexico border from their parents. Many politicians who give such a speech would sound cheeky and unconvincing. Biden can do it because he’s sincere.
As in previous debates and town halls, Biden demonstrated a mastery of the political details, giving him an advantage that Trump will always miss. It is clear that Biden understands the specific requirements of a Chief Executive, that he understands and cares about the issues that he will be dealing with in the Oval Office. Not much was said about the value of technocratic efficiency in these elections, but Biden reminds us that such things are important if the country is to function properly.
Although Biden occasionally lost its edge and sometimes stuttered, overall he had a strong debate. Most importantly, Biden managed to get his message across of the end of the campaign and make a final argument that is likely to resonate with many Americans. “You know who I am, you know who he is,” said Biden, speaking directly to the tens of millions of viewers who were watching at home. “Look at us closely.”
In the final debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, voters were able to do just that.