After the first loud and argumentative presidential debate, the candidates engaged in a slightly more civil performance Thursday night, with Biden expanding on certain policy goals and Trump relying on campaign tactics he’s been using since 2016. But even with the new ability to mute candidates, the debate still devolved into personal attacks.
Trump began the evening with a message that “all is well” regarding COVID-19, continuing his strategy of downplaying the pandemic’s severity.
“We have a vaccine that’s coming; it’s ready,” said Trump, making a false promise to the viewers. “It’s going to be announced within weeks.”
He went on to suggest that the pandemic was all but behind us. “We’re rounding the corner; it’s going away,” he said.
His rhetoric stood in stark contrast to that of Biden, who warned of an approaching “dark winter.”
“There’s not another serious scientist in the world who thinks this is going to be over soon,” Biden said.
As for whether optimism or realism will appeal best to voters, polling indicates that most Americans have lost confidence in the President’s handling of the pandemic. On the same day that Trump assured voters the pandemic was nearly behind them, daily coronavirus cases reached a record high in the U.S.
The debate soon devolved, with Trump and Biden accusing each other of the same misdeeds: Corruption, mistreatment of immigrants, and racism. Trump claimed that Biden received $3.5 million from Russia through Putin, a misleading claim which reflects actions the Trump campaign has been found to engage in.
Trump also referenced a “laptop from hell” containing emails that incriminate Joe Biden and his son Hunter in a scheme of shady business dealings with China. Though this conspiracy theory has been debunked, Trump cried corruption –– recalling his attacks against Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016.
Biden responded with accusations of his own. “You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. What are you hiding?” he asked. “The foreign countries are paying you a lot. Russia is paying you a lot.”
On the topic of immigration, Moderator Kristen Welker asked the candidates how they plan to reunite children with their families, 1000 of whom have been deported under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy.
Trump rejected the premise that his administration has been overly harsh on immigrants, shifting blame for the situation onto the previous administration. “They did it. We changed the policy,” he said in regards to the imprisonment of families at the border. “Who built the cages, Joe?”
Biden’s response was impassioned; he expressed indignation on behalf of the stray children. “Those kids are alone, nowhere to go,” he said. “It’s criminal.”
Race featured prominently in the latter portion of the debate, and strikingly, both candidates proclaimed themselves to be the anti-racist option.
Trump made his oft-repeated claim that “No one has done more for the Black community than me” –– though in reality, his performance ranks in the bottom third of all presidents. In the same breath, he criticized Biden’s support of the 1994 crime bill, misattributing a quote about gang members being “super-predators.”
This is the same tactic Trump used in 2016, when he criticized the true owner of the “super-predator” quote: Hillary Clinton.
Ultimately, Thursday night’s performance was not deeply revelatory for either candidate. For Trump, it featured the repetition of old talking points and political tactics. For Biden, much of the debate was dedicated to correcting mistruths told about himself.
The heart of either candidates' central messaging could be seen in the final question: Of what each would say to those who voted against them.
Trump responded with a soaring review of his own administration: “Everybody had the best numbers,” he said, before repeating the lie that Biden would raise everyone’s taxes.
Biden chose a different route, appealing to the portion of the electorate who have grown weary of the current President’s temperament.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country: decency, honor, respect,” Biden said. "You haven’t been getting it the last four years.