The final debate of the 2020 presidential election was a much more sensible affair than its predecessors — but when it had its moments, it really had its moments. “I’m the least racist person in this room,” said Trump confidently to NBC’s Kristen Walker, the Black woman moderating. “New York is a ghost town,” he announced halfway through, as a tumbleweed very much didn’t go passing by my window in Brooklyn. “I take full responsibility,” he said, of the coronavirus pandemic, before immediately following up with, “It’s not my fault.”
Trump’s attacks on Biden rarely landed tonight, perhaps because he’s most effective when he can throw people off and the muted mics took away that opportunity. “Don’t pretend like you’re some innocent baby” frankly sounded like an insult from kindergarten. “He doesn’t come from Scranton” was another strange aside, considering Biden was born in Scranton and then raised in another, similar town he’d already also talked about (Claymont in Delaware.) “Joe has this thing about living in a basement” was old and tired; claims about Hunter Biden had so little detail as to seem like ridiculous bluster; “You do live very well, Joe, with houses all over the place” was laughable out of the mouth of a man whose multiple properties include a tower in New York City with a golden elevator.
Ultimately, this election comes down to two rich and extraordinary people trying their hardest to position themselves as the American everyman. It’s disingenuous from them both, but it’s especially disingenuous from Trump. Like his claims about Biden’s “shady family”, the hypocrisy is laughable and only reflects badly on him. “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against someone else,” said Biden, about halfway into the debate, when Trump had just delivered a tirade about socialism and Bernie Sanders. He was right in more than one sense: When Trump doesn’t attack the ghost of Bernie, he attacks the ghost of Hillary Clinton with claims about political dynasties and DC bureaucrats. It doesn’t work. Polling shows it hasn’t been working for a good few months.
Biden, who has been civil but uninspiring through a lot of the public performances thus far, came out swinging today. The soundbites he had prepared and the ones that were clearly off-the-cuff were well-timed and effective. A clearly rehearsed speech about the soul of the nation and choosing “science over fiction, hope over fear” rounded off the debate much better than Trump’s word salad about the “China plague”. “Instead of being in a sand trap on his golf course, he should have negotiated” about a pandemic package with Democrats, Biden added, in another moment that seemed scripted but nevertheless packed a punch. Twice he managed to get in that he doesn’t “think in red states or blue states, I think of the United States,” which is a line he’s deployed before but always gets across the right sentiment and seems to be playing well with voters.
And it was those little asides Joe Biden does well that really made it — “We oughta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time” on coronavirus lockdowns, “What are you hiding? What’s going on here?” on Russia, “I guess we’re going to get the pre-existing condition plan at the same time we get the infrastructure plan” on Obamacare, “You’ve been saying this for four years, just show them, stop messing around” on tax returns, and, “I still have a few more minutes, I know you’re getting anxious,” while his opponent fidgeted and turned puce beside him with the effort of not interrupting. Finally it felt like he was holding the president properly to account. “It’s like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe,” he said, as Trump equivocated about Kim Jong-un, in one of the strongest moments of the night.
It would be unfair to say Trump disgraced himself, however. He came to the podium with a lot more specificity and a lot more to say on policy than he has previously. Nevertheless, as Biden grew in confidence throughout the hour and a half, Trump fell apart. He can only sustain a presidential show for about ten minutes before he feels the need to convert into rally mode, and rally mode is badly suited for a debate with a silent, invisible audience and a list of hard-hitting questions. “They’re like a vacuum cleaner, they’re sucking up money,” he said of the Bidens at one point, but he said it without conviction and it seemed like Biden and Walker didn’t even hear. It wasn’t exactly a good old sing-along of “Lock them up!” at a MAGA show in North Carolina.
No debate would be complete without a nod toward some kind of conspiracy these days, and Trump did that when he claimed there are people “deep down in the IRS who don’t like me” after Walker asked him about those infamously unreleased tax returns. It was a little gesture toward the Deep State and nothing more; he’s learnt from his Proud Boys (or, as Biden erroneously called them tonight, Poor Boys) moment at the first debate. Indeed, Trump was so careful that Biden had to bring up something he’d said in an earlier time in order to deliver an admittedly brilliant soundbite: “This guy has a dog-whistle as big as a foghorn.”
By the end of the debate, Trump looked a little desperate. He spoke at a hundred miles an hour about an imagined golden past before rounding it off with, “If [Biden] gets in, you’ll have a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen.” In contrast, Biden painted a calm picture of “enormous opportunities” opening up after his inauguration day. For the first time, he really looked like someone you could vote for enthusiastically. And Trump looked like a man who knows he’s lost a terrifyingly consequential bet.