The morning after the final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, everyone’s news feed was full of analysis, opinion and speculation, all angling towards an answer to the same question: Who won?
In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t matter who won the debate.
With less than two weeks before Election Day (and with tens of millions of votes already cast) Joe Biden is polling ahead of Trump nationally by anywhere between 7 and 10 points, and leads in practically every swing state.
For the record, I think that both candidates “won” the debate, but only because they were trying to achieve such disparate aims. Trump won the debate, because he was able to come across as a brash, macho bully, while staying comfortably marooned from reality by a cocoon of Fox conspiracy theories – but he avoided the descent into pure psychopathy that we witnessed in the last debate.
Biden, on the other hand, won because he was able to communicate a number of key Democratic policies (which are far more popular than those of the Republicans) to the voters, while avoiding any kind of gaffe or verbal slip-up.
Here are a few takeaways from the debate:
Trump has no plan for a second term
Trump spent a lot of time talking, but almost never about what he plans to do in the next four years. He spent more time rambling about Biden’s son Hunter than he spent on any policy or idea from his own campaign.
When asked about racial justice, his response was completely incoherent.
At the time, all I came away with was the impression that lots of people go into Trump’s office. The morning after the debate, I went back and read the debate transcript, and came away none the wiser. It doesn’t make for an inspiring campaign slogan: “Vote for Donald Trump – he has people in his office!”
Maybe the most clear example of this was when the moderator Kristen Welker (who performed her task admirably) asked both candidates what they would say on Inauguration Day, 2021, to Americans who didn’t support them.
While Biden borrowed his old boss Obama’s philosophy of “I represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me,” Trump appeared to misunderstand the question, arguing that a Biden Administration would lead to a depression.
It’s almost as if he can see the writing on the wall to such an extent that he can no longer even imagine what his own victory would look like.
Which is an encouraging thought.
The Democrats could have picked a better debater
The measure of Biden’s debate success in most of the mass media was drawn from the fact that Trump failed to pressure Biden into making the kind of “gaffe” that plagued his debate performances during the primary.
But the fact that that is considered a measure of success just seems so empty. Throughout the debate, I couldn’t help but wish it were one of Biden’s primary opponents on the stage instead of him.
Instead of responding to the President’s lunacy with wry chuckles and the occasional “c’mon,” imagine what Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders would have done to Trump – they would still be scraping him off his podium!
Biden called out Trump’s racism, but not his sexism
Many analysts argue that a key component to Joe Biden’s electoral coalition is a cohort of white, suburban women who voted for Trump in 2016, but have been unable to stomach him in power. Biden knows he has to win over this group to get elected. And yet, somehow, almost unbelievably, there was not a single mention of sexism by either Biden or the moderator in the entire debate (although Biden did make a commendable moral stand for minorities and immigrants). Why?
Biden’s reason for being cautious around the issue is perhaps understandable – in May, a former staffer named Tara Reade accused Biden of a decades-old sexual assault. Although there was little evidence for Reade’s claims, the right-wing conspiracy machine took it and ran with it. If Biden had brought up Trump’s rampant sexism, he would surely have been greeted by a torrent of nonsensical conspiracy theories – but that’s what happened during the debate anyway!
Trump has a decades-long record of being a truly appalling human being, and Biden missed an opportunity to remind the American people of the Access Hollywood tape, Trump’s marital abuse, his use of sexual assault victims as political props during the 2016 campaign, the dozens of sexual assault allegations against him, and the fact that he is using taxpayer dollars to intimidate these accusers.
Don’t worry folks, your President is still nuts!
The main takeaway for much of the mass media was that the debate represented some kind of “return to normality,” with the New York Times’ Daily podcast going so far as to title today’s episode “Sudden Civility.” I could almost hear Van Jones popping up on CNN to tell viewers that, three years and 276 days into his presidency, “he became president of the United States in that moment.”
Don’t be fooled. Trump may have interrupted less compared to the last debate (and remember, his mic was muted part of the time) but he was still brimming with lies, conspiracy theories, and downright crazy ideas throughout the debate.
He once again claimed that COVID-19 is “going away”; he constantly returned to conspiracy theories about Joe Biden’s family that are laughably full of holes; he ranted about “the laptop from hell”; he suggested that his record with the African-American community matched or possibly even exceeded Abraham Lincoln’s; he said he was the least racist person in the room three times and then said he couldn’t see the audience because of the lighting; and he claimed that wind power “kills all the birds!” While those kind of lines may draw laughs rather than horrified stares, neither is fitting for a man with his finger on the nuclear button.
The debate once again displayed the two options facing voters.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden is certainly not perfect — no one is perfect — but anyone who thinks the alternative is better is fooling themselves.