For the first time in 24 years, Americans were presented only two opportunities to watch their candidates trade punches on stage. Thursday night’s debate brought candidates to the campus of Belmont University in Nashville for the final presidential debate, along with a new rule.
In the wake of Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s first matchup, the Commission on Presidential Debates implemented a new way of regulating the candidates outside of the two minute limit. While one of the pair spoke, the other’s microphone would be muted to prevent interruptions that plagued the first debate. Although it drew criticism and speculation that it would create an unfair advantage for either candidate, it was undoubtedly effective in allowing each of the two the time and silence to complete their pitches to debate-watchers.
The debate was moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker, who received praise on social media during the event for asking “great questions and (allowing) time for candidates to respond to one another without letting things get too far off track,” Oliver Darcy, a reporter at CNN, said on Twitter.
The topics that Welker moved through were reminiscent of both the first debate and the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. Starting with the handling of the novel coronavirus; the economy; foreign policy; climate change and racial injustices, she offered questions that viewers could recognize from the first time Biden and Trump clashed on stage. However, their responses were audible and easier to follow than before.
The president lept on this opportunity to present himself as “immune” to the virus from the treatment he received at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center and to, once more,
downplay the virus and make the statement that he had made in the days leading up to the debate.
“We are rounding the turn, rounding the corner,” Trump said.
He also used the moment to claim that medical professionals had projected 2.2 million Americans would be dead due to COVID-19, juxtaposing that number with over 220,000 deaths, a familiar statement that he continues to present without context. The number, although accurate to the projection, refers to what officials believed would be the result without efforts to mitigate death.
Biden, coming into the debate with significantly more favorability, according to most polls, kept the content of his responses focused on the administration’s failures. This was a theme for the former vice president throughout the 90 minutes he was on stage.
“220,000 Americans are dead. Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not be the president of the United States,” he said in his first response of the night.
Biden also returned to speaking directly to the viewers Thursday. He repeated his “empty seat at the table” anecdote as a counter to Trump’s claims that Americans will, in time, learn to live with the virus.
“People are learning to die with (the virus),” Biden said. “People at home will have empty seats at the table. We are not learning to live with it, we are going to learn to die with it.”
Shifting away from the virus, Welker posed to the candidates a question about a press conference, called by John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence. In the conference, he said that both Russia and Iran were attempting to interfere with the election.
“I made it clear that any country that interferes will pay a price,” Biden responded sternly. In his following comments, he discussed the importance of recognizing disinformation
and took shots at the president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani. This was a preemptive defense for what Trump would respond with next, regarding laptop files that accuse Biden of corruption in the Ukraine.
“What he said was damning,” Trump said regarding the files.
In many ways, this mirrors the 2016 election. When Hillary Clinton’s email was hacked and made public by WikiLeaks, the intelligence community had forensic evidence. This was a golden egg for Trump, pushing Clinton’s trustworthiness into a gutter. However, neither Trump nor Biden has hard evidence to prove their cases, so both candidates have been able to spread the message that they want about the accusations.
The debate was not simply Trump v. Biden. There were instances of damage that each of the candidates inflicted onto themselves, most notably the semantics on healthcare for the president and a gaffe about fossil fuels for the former vice president.
In an interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, Trump was pressed repeatedly about the status of the healthcare plan that he has said will replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), oftentimes referred to as Obamacare. In response, he used phrases such as “we will have” and “it will be,” which Welker questioned him about on Thursday.
Biden, while talking about climate change, said he would transition away from the oil industry as renewable energy replaces it. He also said he would “stop giving them federal subsidies.” This statement, given while being pressed by the president, resulted in reporters questioning Biden about it after the debate.
“We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re going to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.”
The two concluded the debate with very different messages. Trump concluded the debate by mentioning the low unemployment rate for people of color under his administration and dishing out one last punch towards Biden about taxes.
“We had the best Black unemployment numbers in the history of our country. Hispanic, women, Asian, people with diplomas, with no diplomas, MIT graduates — number one in the class,” Trump said. “He wants to raise everybody’s taxes and he wants to put new regulations on everything. He will kill it. If he gets in, you will have a Depression, the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
Biden ended the night by pressing his message of unity and bipartisanship, while also returning a final response to the president.
“I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me, and I’m going to make sure that you’re represented,” he said. “What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency, honor, respect. Treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years.”