The oratorical display of an Oxford Union forum it was not, but the final televised debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden was a vast improvement over the cacophonous calamity of their first verbal melee. If the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign felt like a 90-minute anesthetic-free emergency root canal, last night’s face-off at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee was more of a routine scaling — not all that enjoyable, but ultimately clarifying.
For the first time in the history of events hosted by The Commission on Presidential Debates, to curb the distracting interruptions that plagued the first debate, microphones were automatically muted during the initial answers given by the candidate on the clock. After both candidates had their exclusive chance to respond to the question posed, the mics were unmuted, and Trump and Biden were allowed to cross-examine each other or answer shorter follow-up queries from the moderator.
During the first hour, in particular, the president displayed an impressive level of poise and discipline before pivoting back to a more aggressive style as he displayed in the opening debate. It was certainly Trump’s best performance in recent memory.
Trump landed several blows that may bruise Biden enough to weaken the latter’s steady lead in the polls, such as pointing out Biden’s inconsistent position on fracking and the lack of notable accomplishments during the former VP’s 47 years in politics. Yet instant polls conducted by CNN, Data Progress, and U.S. Politics found debate watchers thought Biden still won the debate by an average of 9 percent. With 48 million votes already cast, Trump has to find a way to change the trajectory of the race.
Biden attempted to defuse any discussion of his son, Hunter, with a deflective rejoinder likely rehearsed ad nauseum during his days of debate prep, exclaiming, “It’s not about his family or my family. It’s about your family, and your family’s hurting badly.” So, in his response to questioning on the evolving Hunter scandal, Biden played to one of his strengths, striking an empathetic, fatherly tone to evoke feelings of understanding from parents across the country who have also dealt with familial struggles.
Biden’s response, nearly identical to a line from the first debate, may prove insufficient to many voters. It’s hard to believe that answer will quell the growing interest in the daily drip-drip-drop of new emails, texts, and revelations, given credence through the Biden campaign’s baffling refusal to explicitly deny the validity of the original New York Post story and further updates that have emerged since then.
The topics, chosen by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC, spanned “COVID-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security,” and “Leadership,” with the topics of COVID-19 and race relations repeated from the much-derided first debate. Compared to previous 2020 debate moderators Chris Wallace and Susan Page, Welker controlled the debate far better, moved things along well, and asked a fair share of pointed questions to each candidate.
That said, the spread of topics addressed during the 2020 debates was detrimentally unbalanced. Case in point, as a topic that scores near the bottom of issues voters care about, it was frustrating that climate change received such an oversized emphasis during the two Trump versus Biden debates.
True, there’s only a limited time allotted and every topic can’t conceivably be covered, but certainly, time from the already exhausted topics of climate change and the environment could have been spread across important issues like Second Amendment rights, religious liberty, tax policy, and terrorism that were left in the dark.
Also glaring is the fact that too many important questions remained largely unmentioned, let alone answered. Trump’s undeniable successes in securing numerous peace deals involving Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates were never brought up, nor was Biden pressed on Iran, nor how his foreign policy in the Middle East would differ from President Trump’s. Like so many in the press before her, Welker also punted on the much-needed task of getting Biden to definitively answer where he stands on the controversial idea of packing the U.S. Supreme Court.
To Welker’s greatest discredit, her failure to question the candidates about how they would address the rapidly growing $27 trillion U.S. national debt was a grossly negligent sin of omission. While there is ample reason to doubt the most hysterically apocalyptic predictions of pending climate doom, the looming national debt is irrefutably real, as is the bill future generations will eventually have to pay for the reckless growth of government coupled with our horrific financial malfeasance.
Similarly, that Social Security was not seriously and honestly addressed during the 2020 campaign is equally shameful and irresponsible. No, Social Security reform isn’t a “sexy” issue that will either gin up the base or win over independents. But it’s also not so “sexy” to pay into a ludicrous and soon-to-be-bankrupt system knowing you’ve got a next to zero chance of seeing that money ever again.
Sure, with good reason, Social Security is called the “third rail” of American politics. But a debate, with captive participants and millions watching, presents just the opportunity to force the contenders to grab hold of that fully-electrified third rail with both hands, and — for goodness sake — tell us what they’re going to do to avoid disaster.
Will either candidate raise the retirement age? Institute means testing? Move to gradually privatize the program into personal retirement accounts, as seen in numerous other First World nations?
Both Trump and Biden have, on different occasions, repeated the line that they’re “not going to take away your Social Security.” Great. But Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers deserve to know which leader of which party — if any — has thought of real, concrete steps to blunt the blow of Social Security’s coming insolvency, set to hit as soon as 2028.
There are 11 days until the polls close; still time for Trump and Biden to address some of the real, dire issues concerning all Americans and the future of their families. The American people are tough. They can handle the truth, no matter how painful. What they can’t afford is for the nation’s would-be leaders to dodge the toughest issues like most politicians before them, and for a negligent press to let them get away with it.