A favorite, much-spoofed Joe Biden expression is to say, “Now, here’s the deal.”
But the former Vice President used Thursday night’s debate with Donald Trump to close the deal, pivoting to address the American people and not the wretched, fabrication-spouting noise machine with whom he shared the stage.
Trump was winging it, making stuff up on the fly and returning to his greatest hits, which are many cases his nastiest and most insidious lies.
The incumbent doesn’t read his briefing materials, and obviously did not prep for a debate that was his last opportunity to turn around an election.
The first break point came with talk of the coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic “will go away. And I say, we’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” said Trump.
He has recited variations of that statement thirty-eight times in recent months.
“Learning to live with it! C’mon. We’re dying with it,” Biden retorted.
In fact, 1,100 Americans died of SARS-CoV‑2, the novel coronavirus, the day before the debate, with the death toll now past 220,000.
Trump did not have the opportunity to repeat his seventy-two interruptions of the first debate on stage in Nashville. Kristen Welker of NBC News did the best job of keeping big cats in their place since I watched famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty as a little kid at the circus. Having a production staff with a mute button helped.
With Trump, as ever, everything was about him.
The man lacks empathy, which is a central Biden attribute. Asked about his minuscule tax bill in 2016 and 2017, the incumbent called $750 a “filing fee.” Biden talked of publishing his tax returns for the past twenty-two years.
The discussion later moved to Trump’s draconian immigration and asylum policies, with Welker bringing up the more than five hundred immigrant kids who were separated from their parents at the border, and whose parents cannot be found.
Trump threw up an evasive flurry about kids being brought north by “coyotes.” Biden countered that they were brought here by and taken from parents, even nursing mothers. “Those kids are alone,” he said. “They have nowhere to go.”
Biden didn’t just counter Trump. He promised to at last deliver immigration reform, offering undocumented immigrants a path to legal status and giving Dreamers security in a country where they’ve lived most of their lives.
Biden looked nothing like the “Sleepy Joe” moniker Trump has often used. Nor did he show any signs of running out the clock. He took the fight to Trump. The former veep’s boldest moment came when accusing the incumbent of racism.
At first, debate watchers heard the usual Trump fakery. He claimed to have done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, following with another piece of self-flattery: “I am the least racist person in this room.”
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden shot back. “This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
The candidates’ closing remarks drove home themes of the debate.
Welker asked a simple question of the candidates: “In your inaugural address, on January 20th, 2021, what would you say to Americans who did not vote for you?”
Trump has voiced no second term agenda.
He responded to Welker by once more defending his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, once more, he attacked Biden for wanting to invest in America.
“If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you have never seen. Your 401(k) will go to hell and it will be a very, very sad day for the country.”
Biden made a simple point, one not often heard in the past four years.
“I don’t see red states or blue states, I see a United States.”
At other points during the debate, Trump cranked up his meanness, attacking Hunter Biden and implying Joe Biden is soft on China. Biden countered with Trump’s secret China bank account, revealed Tuesday in the New York Times.
When Trump returned to Hunter’s business dealings, Biden turned to the camera and said, “It’s not about his family or my family. It’s about your family.”
Biden asked a question Trump has never answered: Has he raised with Vladimir Putin the bounty that Russia has put on American military personnel in Iraq?
The interconnected subjects of climate action and environmental protection was raised, finally, as part of a preplanned segment devised by Welker.
Biden talked about transitioning away from a fossil fuel to a clean energy economy. Trump trashed wind turbines by hyping the problem of bird strike.
And he returned to his accusation that Biden opposes fracking. Once again, however, Biden talked to the country and offered a coherent goal. Trump delivered his least convincing line of the night: “I do love the environment.”
In sum, Trump had his last best chance to turn the campaign around. In the words of FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver: “He doesn’t appear to have done it.”
The CNN instant who-won poll came out moments after his tweet.
Its verdict? Biden fifty-three percent, Trump thirty-nine percent. Biden went into the debate a frontrunner. He came out of the debate a frontrunner.