Last night, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden debated for the second and final time before the election. With fewer than two weeks to go, Biden is leading solidly in the national polling, although Trump is close enough in the swing states to be within striking distance of a second term. Naturally, there was a fair bit riding on last night’s spectacle, with Trump needing to induce a mistake on the part of his opponent notable enough to move the polls and Biden simply needing to hang tight as the clock ticks down. How did it go?

Here are three key takeaways from the debate:

  1. Trump Was Notably Disciplined and On-Message Relative to the First Debate. The first debate was widely considered to be a disaster for Trump. The polls reflected this, as Biden opened up a substantial lead in multiple national averages in the aftermath. The chief complaint was that Trump was too aggressive, attempting to dominate exchanges rather than make points and force Biden to respond to challenging questions. Essentially, he took Biden off the hook with interruptions as many times as he put him on it with good queries. Unlike in the first debate, last night Trump infrequently interrupted or spoke over Biden and moderator Kristen Welker. He made his points or asked his questions and then actually forced Biden to work out a response. Though Biden held up fairly well throughout the debate, there were points during which he stumbled to find the proper words and appeared to be losing steam. Trump, on the other hand, came off far more palatable to the public, which could focus on his policies and points against Biden rather than his behavior behind the podium.
  2. We Need Moderators That Consistently Ask Tough Questions to Both Candidates. Overall, Kristen Welker did her job well last night, garnering praise from both Republicans and Democrats. But there were points where it was clear that the candidates could be subjected to tougher and more useful questioning. For example, at one point, Welker confronted Trump about all of the foolish things he’s ever said throughout his presidency, including his supposed refusals to condemn white supremacy and offensive comments about minority groups. Grinning deviously, Biden joined in on the fun – and the question never came round to him. If we’re going to be on the topic of offensive statements, why isn’t Joe Biden asked about some of his gems? Telling black Americans that “you ain’t black” if they don’t vote for him; in 2012, warning a room of black voters that Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains”; saying that “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” How does Joe Biden get to walk off the stage as the infallible untarnished, the President for All Americans™? Here’s an idea. How about we have debates co-moderated by open partisans instead of “objective” Democratic campaign donors? Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow. Sean Hannity and Chris Cuomo. Laura Ingraham and Don Lemon. Then Americans know, at the least, that both candidates will get skewered as much as the Republican.
  3. When Trump Didn’t Interrupt Biden Making Mistakes, Biden Made Mistakes. Trump needed to induce an epic blunder from Biden last night in order to potentially gain in the polls this close to the election. Bided delivered. Nearing the conclusion of the debate, the uninterrupted speaking finally caught up with Biden, who let slip when prompted by Trump that he would effectively eliminate the oil industry as part of his climate plan: “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes. The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” That isn’t likely to be what the fine voters of the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Ohio were looking to hear. Naturally, the media coverage of such a blunder is not on the blunder itself but the Republicans “pouncing” on the blunder. Trump got the mistake his campaign needed. Now the question is whether or not the media can simultaneously shield Biden from his ostensible desire to eliminate millions of jobs and his alleged corruption as vice president doing shady multi-million dollar deals with Chinese front organizations.

The debates are done. Our election cycle is nearly thus concluded. All matters considered, we can hope for at least one thing: if Rush Limbaugh won’t do us the courtesy of being president, then perhaps he’ll at least be willing to take Americans for an excursion into debate-moderating excellence.

(Photo: Flickr/Emma Kaden/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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