U.S. voters on Thursday night got what had barely seemed possible: A coherent and sometimes substantive presidential debate.
After the first tilt between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden turned into an incoherent shoutfest last month, and the second was cancelled last week because Mr. Trump refused to agree to a video-link format following his COVID-19 diagnosis, expectations were low for the final meeting between the rivals.
But during the 90-minute clash at Nashville’s Belmont University, the candidates managed to avoid talking over each other, finish their points and even draw contrasts on policy.
While the night contained numerous attacks and rapid-fire exchanges, it was actually possible to follow – and may even have provided useful information for the small number of voters still on the fence.
Here are six highlights.
The restrained Trump
During the first debate, the President repeatedly interrupted and heckled Mr. Biden, and tried to shout down moderator Chris Wallace. By contrast on Thursday, Mr. Trump behaved more like a conventional politician. He interrupted Mr. Biden only infrequently, typically allowing him to finish his thoughts, and mostly obeyed moderator Kristen Welker’s directives.
The Commission on Presidential Debates also instituted changes to the format designed to make the exchanges more orderly: After every question, each candidate had two uninterrupted minutes to respond, while their rival’s microphone was turned off. The Commission gave Ms. Welker the ability to give interrupted candidates additional speaking time.
Biden the prosecutor
The former vice-president was strongest when laying out his case against Mr. Trump, often framing his arguments in moral terms.
“Two-hundred and twenty-thousand Americans dead,” Mr. Biden opened the night with an attack on the President’s handling of COVID-19. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America.”
Later, he laced into the President for separating migrant children from their parents at the border with Mexico. “It makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” Mr. Biden said in his most impassioned moment of the night. “Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
Mr. Trump replied that the children are being held in comfortable detention centres. “They’re in facilities that are so clean,” he said.
Mr. Biden also used some of his strongest language when condemning Mr. Trump’s treatment of Black and Latino people. After the President attacked Black Lives Matter, then insisted that “I am the least racist person in this room” and “no one has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump” with the “possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” Mr. Biden fired a broadside.
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Mr. Biden mocked the President, saying Mr. Trump has a “dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”
Biden the doddery uncle
Having more time to speak uninterrupted, however, also showcased Mr. Biden’s tendency to ramble, occasionally stumbling over some of his scripted lines. It was a regular problem during his debates with Democratic primary challengers, and would be familiar to anyone who watched his stump speeches earlier this year.
At one point, discussing health care, the former vice-president said Americans “are worried, rolling around in bed tonight wondering what in God’s name are you going to do if you got sick because you’ve lost your home – your health – insurance.” On the pandemic, Mr. Biden said Mr. Trump was “responsible for not taking control, in fact, not saying I’m, I take no responsibility initially.”
He also referred to far-right group the Proud Boys as “the poor boys” and had no clear answer when Ms. Welker asked him how he would get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or expand health care access if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act.
Welker the boss
Ms. Welker ran a far smoother debate than the one presided over by Mr. Wallace or the vice-presidential tilt, in which USA Today reporter Susan Page did not press Mike Pence and Kamala Harris for direct answers when they dodged her questions.
Much of the difference Thursday was the attitude of the candidates. But Ms. Welker also adopted an effective moderation style, asking pointed questions, intervening to keep the candidates on track and ensuring equal time – but doing it all in a relatively subtle way that allowed Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden space to get their points across.
The more comprehensible exchanges allowed the debate to get into some policy specifics, highlighting the sharp contrasts between the two candidates' promises for the country.
Mr. Biden, for instance, said he would eventually phase out oil in favour of renewable energy, but without banning fracking. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, attacked efforts to fight climate change, deriding energy retrofits of buildings because it would entail installing “little, tiny, small windows.”
On health care, Mr. Biden reiterated his pledge to create a voluntary “public option” health insurance program (which he dubbed “Bidencare”) that would compete with current private plans. Mr. Trump doubled down on his promise to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which would strip health care coverage from roughly 20 million Americans and end protection for pre-existing conditions, but did not say what he would replace it with.
Mr. Biden promised to bring in a US$15 an hour minimum wage. Mr. Trump said it was up to individual states to decide on the issue.
Mr. Trump expounded on his realpolitik approach to foreign policy, arguing that the U.S. had to have “a good relationship” even with dictators such as Kim Jong-un. “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded,” Mr. Biden fired back. “C’mon.”
‘The laptop from hell’
Mr. Trump’s most persistent attacks of the night involved Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says he has a copy of a laptop hard drive that formerly belonged to Hunter Biden and contains e-mails showing that he brokered meetings between business associates and his father.
“Don’t give me this stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” Mr. Trump hammered Mr. Biden, and referenced the “laptop from hell.”
Mr. Biden charged that the laptop is a fabricated “Russian plant” and that Mr. Giuliani was “being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that is not true.” Mr. Biden said the meetings described in the purported e-mails did not happen.
The President then accused Mr. Biden, without providing evidence, of “probably” receiving money from Russia and several other foreign countries.
“I have not taken a penny form any foreign source in my life,” Mr. Biden said, before launching into an attack on Mr. Trump’s decision to open a bank account in China as part of a prospective investment there. “Russia’s paying you a lot. China’s paying you a lot.”
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