Thursday, October 22nd saw the second and final Presidential Debate between incumbent President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden. Hosted at the Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee, tonight’s battle was less chaotic than the first on September 29.
Microphones were muted tonight when speakers were not actively speaking to each other, which helped immensely with each candidate speaking over each other last time. Moderator Kristen Welker handled the debate well, no doubt aided strongly by the muted mics.
There’s a lot to unpack from tonight’s debate. Affinity’s Politics Team is here to discuss it all, from foreign policy to dead birds. Let’s jump into it.
Sophia: The night opened up with a discussion about Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, once again. Do you think discussing the pandemic still has merit? What’s your opinion on Trump’s anecdotal approach to discussing the virus?
Joanna: The discussion of the pandemic, I would argue, has increased merit tonight, as health experts warn of an “impending second wave” as the flu also begins to rage in these winter months. At the same time, cases are rising in many states all around the US. Thousands of lives are being lost each week, and America is still nowhere near done with the tragedy, which will likely continue on into 2021, or the next term of the presidency.
On Trump’s anecdotal approach to the virus, I don’t really remember if he had one. What I actually took away from the COVID-19 discussion was Biden’s anecdotes – those on the husband or wife reaching across an empty bed, the kitchen table missing a seat- those are the small things that likely really resonate with many families. Trump’s approach- saying that 2.2 million lives could’ve been lost, undermines the impact and tragedy of these 200,000 deaths that we already have lost.
One of the most concerning issues with the pandemic response, on Trump’s end, is his refusal to acknowledge science, saying companies like Johnson and Johnson are ready to produce new vaccines by the end of the year is a far cry from scientific reality, with Fauci projecting an optimistic April 2021, and many others proposing a more realistic June 2021. Either way, we will be in this pandemic for quite some time, and the truth is people don’t have the same access and treatments that this president had access to. On the virus, Biden did the right thing tonight, really pushing Trump for his failed pandemic response, and I think that paid off well.
Helen: The pandemic is still a very divisive and influential topic in the race, as it’s altered numerous aspects of life, including political life. Discussing the virus is a bit of a catalyst for other subjects, so it still arguably is useful to campaigns who wish to really establish their views on other topics, or enforce their pro-science stance. For the viewers, this doesn’t provide much new information or value.
President Trump has been brushing off the number of deaths, instead claiming that the U.S. has been breaking records in employment, not COVID cases. Biden has used the pandemic as way to connect with the American public on loss. Trump using this subject to discuss the economy is nothing new from him, despite the record employment numbers he has been boasting actually being in comparison to the devastating unemployment that has swept the U.S. since March. The flu-comparison is already very ingrained in his bases’ mind and rejected by his opposers, so this is not necessarily valuable. The same goes for the false claims of the U.S. “rounding a bend.” There wasn’t really a fresher attempt at arguments other than the ones he’s been pushing for months.
Trump’s diagnosis also shifted polling and some stances, though that has somewhat restabilized.
So, Joe just laid out three things he would do to combat the COVID spike, and Trump spent his two minutes saying, “People tell me I’m awesome.” #Debates2020— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) October 23, 2020
Sophia: Great points. Moving on, the discussion of national security in elections was dominated by the question of Trump and Biden supposedly receiving money from foreign nations, Russia, most prominently. Was this straying from the moderator’s question justified? Acknowledging Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, how does this conversation relate to the interests of the American public and what makes a trustworthy politician?
Joanna: The Trump campaign came in tonight knowing they needed to take a big win. The best way for them to try and do that? Capitalize on the recent NY Post article with Hunter Biden accusations. The Biden accusations of foreign interference were proven false, but they are out there to try and help Trump, and that’s the strategy this campaign wanted to use to cycle clips over and over.
I think that there are a lot of fake rumors circling around with Biden’s foreign policy, with fact checks confirming that Hunter’s Ukraine involvement had nothing to do with Joe Biden, and other fact checks talking about Trump’s problematic China investment. I think that had this debate come just slightly before the China bank account scandal, Trump would’ve been able to push a lot more on Hunter Biden. This is the key difference between Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – there’s a lot less room for Trump to attack his opponent when his opponent is also a white, old, man. The point of the matter being that Trump had to resort to these foreign policy issues last minute to try and save himself. Did he do that? He tried. Did it work? No.
President Trump repeatedly excused President Vladimir Putin’s behavior and is not known to have confronted him about a CIA assessment that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 23, 2020
Find our fact checks for the #Debates2020 here. https://t.co/21qxKPrCVb pic.twitter.com/0XyX5RVrw5
Trump’s tax returns are going to be a pretty big issue for him this election. I would say that the majority of Americans pay more taxes than him. The lies he spit out with “prepay” and $750 being a fee needed to access his taxes were both just unconfirmed and not how the tax paying process works. His unwillingness to justify either of these issues just makes him less trustworthy.
The other point Trump tried to capitalize on, which relates to this question, is that idea of a “trustworthy politician,” one of his strongest back in 2016. But there are problems with this now too, because as the leader of one of the two major parties, and as the office holder of the highest position of power in the united states, he is a politician, and a career politician at that, whether he likes it or not. He can’t say all these things and point fingers anymore because he himself now embodies a lot of these ideals that he’s pointing fingers at Joe Biden for.
Helen: Former Vice President Biden used this moment to emphasize his experience working in foreign affairs, honing in on the interference from Iran and Russia. Trump took this and ran with Hunter Biden. Trump has been heavily focusing on Hunter since the last debate, but he’s been doing this for a long time – Trying to dig up or create dirt on Hunter Biden was what led to his impeachment. Photos of Hunter and Joe Biden embracing, strange laptop claims and general attacks on the Biden family have been popular in the last few weeks. This wasn’t really shocking, considering Trump had to rely on misdirection tonight, with the inability to cut in and speak out of turn. The Trump administration has been trying to clean up their foreign policy record in the last few weeks using financial pressure, particularly with Israel and Sudan (just Israeli relations in general, honestly). Biden pushing his own record on foreign policy may have fanned these flames, a bit.
It’s important that the American people are aware of the financial loyalties and investments of their leaders. Clear and reported financial records will help to instill confidence or educate voters in candidates.
Sophia: Next, The North Korea discussion? What do you think about Biden’s approach to international relations, especially pre-conditions to meet with Kim Jong Un? What do you think about Biden’s more traditionally diplomatic approach, compared to Trump’s shortfallings with international relations during his presidency? Do you think Biden’s plans are enough to mend Trump’s actions?
Joanna: I think that Trump did make some good improvements in being able to meet with Kim Jong Un. However, his meeting didn’t really result in anything substantive. North Korea still launches missiles all the time, the South Korea/ North Korea border holds a lot of tension. There are a lot of gaping holes in Trump’s talk about North Korea, and we have seen him chum up a lot to Kim Jong Un. I think Biden is not exactly right in going in with preconditions either though, because I know in 2008 Obama said he would be open to meeting without preconditions, and it portrays Joe Biden as less open than a moderate Obama. I don’t think any US President is going to be able to impose much control over the North Korean leader. I think Biden might be right to go in with precautions, but honestly, until that talk is implemented into action, it’s anyone’s guess how that relationship might go.
Helen: Foreign policy has been an awkward subject during the Trump years. From Kushner to Pompeo, there’s a sense of confusion, because other than “America First” and being generally pro-Israel it doesn’t dictate a great deal of the Trump bases’ views. Trump has yanked the U.S. out of agreements/accords, negotiated irregular trade deals, fought with China on business almost every step of the way and almost plunged the U.S. into international panic over the killing of General Qasim Solemani. Additionally, the U.S.’ alignments with unconventional world leaders have raised quite a few red flags and eyebrows over the course of Trump’s four years. He has infamously been mocked by and distanced from other world leaders, (remember the infamous NATO gossiping at Trump’s expense?)
Biden would mean a return to the status quo, which could be good and bad. His whole push during campaigning has been that world leaders know him, like him and trust him. The world has changed a lot since Biden was in office, but to an extent he is correct about his understanding of how to work with diplomats and leaders. Not only do Trump and Biden differ on a number of issues, but Biden’s connections with leaders and previous understanding makes him somewhat valuable in recalibrating and establishing the U.S. role internationally. Some things cannot be resolved after being so drastically altered, which needs to be acknowledged now. There is also a more drastic need for action on topics like climate action than simply rejoining the Paris Climate accord, and the Biden campaign has not necessarily demonstrated an interest in pushing too far beyond the style of the Obama years. International relations will look very different by 2024 depending on who takes office on November 3rd.
Sophia: Biden’s comments on healthcare and his proposal for a public healthcare option tightly affirm his desire to remove himself from the “radical” views of other Left-wing politicians while still appealing to proponents of public healthcare. Is Trump’s tactic of identifying Biden’s plan as “socializing healthcare” still valid amidst the backdrop of the pandemic and precarious balance of the Affordable Care Act? Against the backdrop of his lack of an apparent replacement?
Joanna: I think the Biden healthcare plan works as he tries to target middle of the road Republicans and still tries to keep ahold of the Democratic party, because it really does bridge Obamacare with more adjustments, and a public and private option, which is really important. Trump’s lack of a healthcare plan is alarming. It’s been alarming since even John McCain vetoed the skinny bill trying to make its way through the Senate back in 2017. There has been no plan since. If there was one, Trump would’ve been ready to release it. And no, Biden is not Bernie Sanders. I think everyone can agree with the idea that the two had jarringly different plans. This is a point Biden has brought up many times during the night. With COVID-19 being the peak issue, it makes Trump wanting to get rid of the ACA and replacing it with this question mark of a plan poorly timed. I don’t think Trump sold it on healthcare.
Helen: Trump’s push to label Biden as a socialist has some Conservatives slandering him for being a leftist, Poll data actually shows that voters don’t see Biden as a radical, despite the months of painting the party as socialists. They’ve shifted gears a bit to call Biden a trojan horse for Bernie Sanders, which Biden has fought back against really hard. This entire dynamic has caused actual Socialists to wonder where Conservatives see a Socialist candidate. This actually presented Biden with the opportunity to slam Trump saying that he is “a very confused man,” though he did work in yet another dig at Senator Bernie Sanders through this.
Biden’s healthcare plan is not socialized medicine by any means, but it is very important to voters. This is a more digestible plan for voters across the aisle, which has continued to work against the Trump message, especially as they’re trying to strip the country of healthcare. It’s also not Obamacare, so it is a little strange that the Affordable Care Act is the focal point for both campaigns, though that is probably very intentional. It is, as Biden called it tonight, “Biden Care.”
Sophia: Excellent point, Helen. Polarization has caused the entire Overton window to shift seemingly out of our control. Next question: In a moment of passion, Biden claimed that he doesn’t “see red or blue states,” but instead, he sees “America, United States.” Is his approach to be the unifying candidate supported by statements like this? Do you think Biden is doing enough to affirm himself as the candidate who aims to bring the nation together?
Joanna: I think Joe Biden is doing a good job uniting voters this year. There’s a poll that indicates that 11% of Republicans will be voting for Joe Biden this year, with around 8% of Democrats flipping sides. The reason Joe Biden is being hailed as the man for this moment is because his time in Washington showed he was well known for working across the aisle. He is a man who has dealt with a lot of loss and tragedy within his family life, which makes him poised for a time where America is facing a lot of illness. More importantly, he is not Hillary Clinton, he is not going to be the first of anything, we’ve had 44 white men as president, but he can be calm. He can speak as a more steady voice to Trump’s demeaning one, one we witnessed on that stage tonight. Joe Biden’s 47 years as a politician represent his capability to reach out to others, as do the thousands of republicans voting for him this year. Biden’s history speaks for itself and, if elected, he wouldn’t be a shocking new thing, but a stabilizing force after Trump.
Biden’s more moderate policies mean that yes, he will be able to bridge across the aisle. I think we saw this during fracking discussions, during economic policies, during small business aid, among other issues. We particularly saw it during that COVID-19 response, with the whole United States talk, directly in juxtaposition with Trump pointing fingers at blue states.
Helen: From the very beginning of his campaign, Biden has been selling himself as the candidate of the country. Biden’s willingness to ignore states’ political affiliations greatly contrasts the Trumpian style of withholding aid from and blaming blue states. Biden’s state color blindness has been a bit of a concern to some though, as they worry he will try to spend his four years trying to work across the aisle with little success. The political landscape of America has been deeply altered over the past four years, and division is essentially part of the culture now. If he were to come into office, Biden would have to work beyond not seeing states’ political stances, but he’s in a pretty good spot for the campaign trail.
Biden’s poll leads alone are indicative of his popularity with a number of voter groups, even ones the Party assumed may have been lost to Trump forever.
Sophia: Let’s talk about Trump’s view of migrant children, immigrants and the detention camp crisis at the border. Notably, he was obsessed with knowing “who built the cages” and vilified the “coyotes,” “cartels,” and “gangs” that bring immigrant children across the border. Thoughts?
Joanna: The NBC article on the 545 children still struggling to reunite with their parents is a new report. It comes after the leaked audio recordings of Melania Trump, who said “give me a f*cking break” when complaining about the children at the border. The family separation laws under this administration have led to permanent emotional and mental damage for many of these young children. The point of the matter being, it shouldn’t have mattered who brought the children in (and in this case, it was their parents, who were then deported before they could reunite and who now are untraceable.) Again, this is all part of Donald Trump’s debate strategy, because he needed to really sweep the floor tonight to get a win and a large boost in the polls. He wanted to attack the Obama administration with the cages, but then, the question becomes who used those cages? Him. He wanted to say the facilities were all clean and shiny, but who said that a bed and toothpaste and a toothbrush weren’t essentials? Again, his administration. He wanted to say immigration is better than ever before, but the crisis has only peaked under his administration. There’s a lot of deflecting going on here, but I don’t think many voters will fall for these deflections.
Please explain “children are brought here by coyotes” to me? I’m certain that’s not literal…#Debates2020— Lexa Doig (@LexaDoig) October 23, 2020
Helen: Trump has repeatedly used racist language to vilify Latin American nations and citizens. This is sadly nothing new. This appears to be another last-ditch attempt to rile up his base about border security, similar to the “caravan” panic he tried to sow, despite the wall’s questionable status. Trump has also tried to create a sense of urgency regarding immigration during his presidency, despite the largest decade of immigration to the U.S. occurring from 2000 to 2010. Trump likes to turn the situation on Biden whenever immigration comes up, and unfortunately for Biden, the Obama administration’s immigration policies were murky. The cages were built during those years, though their purpose was not necessarily established for the reason of detaining isolated children for prolonged periods of time. Biden’s immigration policies are dramatically different than Trump’s, regardless of the cages. Biden has struggled with how to approach immigration on the campaign trail, dating back to democratic debates. Tonight he actually labeled the Obama administration’s immigration approach a “mistake.” Trump’s claims and policies about immigration actually seemed to really bother Biden, beyond a policy stance.
Sophia: Towards the end of the night, the conversation shifted to race relations in the United States. The conversation about BLM tonight involved Trump’s explanation of his dislike for the organization, crediting anti-police rhetoric as his reason for his lack of support. Trump also called himself the “least racist person” in the debate room. Was his strategy to further link BLM with anti-police sentiment effective? Do you think his pro-police sentiment is helpful or harmful to any undecided voters, especially amidst prominent social media movements and calls to reform police departments?
Joanna: I don’t think the conversation about BLM tonight revolved around Trump- I think we need to shift it more to Biden. The anecdotal approach with the talk, talking about his privilege and acknowledging it, showed the clear contrast between the two candidates and their empathy levels. The Trump argument is nothing new and I don’t think anyone really learned anything new from it. I think it’s time to shift the emphasis onto what Biden would bring to the table.
I think Biden did an overall good job defending his record tonight, including the passage of that 1994 bill, which he was well prepared to respond to. He didn’t make major gaffes on race, which is also a win for the guy who just has to perform decently well to stay afloat. Those anecdotes he created were powerful though, really powerful, and I think that’s something people are going to get from the race section.
The Trump strategy just didn’t work because Trump has shown that he is racist. From Charlottesville until now, there have been a plethora of race-related issues. The pro-police sentiment certainly won’t cost him people in his base, but the fact that he said he was the least racist person, in front of a half-Black moderator and a crowd with at least some minority individuals is not going to gain him any points from anyone else.
what better way to prove you’re the least racist person in the room than by calling the entire continent of Asia filthy #Debates2020— Betches (@betchesluvthis) October 23, 2020
Helen: Conservatives have been using “protecting the suburbs” as a way to tell their voters that they want to defend police, while also setting off major white supremacy signals. By detaching racial justice and the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement from conversations of race, Trump is able to point to police abolition as an unnecessary evil. This is similar to Vice President Pence claiming that institutional racism isn’t real. Being pro-police has been enough to win some voters, especially when the fear factor is played up enough. Biden is pretty pro-law enforcement (his running mate even has been mocked online for “being a cop”), but he’s working to better some of his record and learn, which is offering much more than Trump’s inability to genuinely condemn neo-fascist organizations (he’s also scored the support of figures like former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke).
This was a point in the night where Biden seemed pretty comfortable, despite this opening up the debate for Trump to make his attack on Biden for being a career politician, which has been a popular line of his for the past few months.
Sophia: Do you think tonight’s final debate was representative of the candidates America will be and has been voting for? In your opinion, was tonight’s debate any more informative or influential than the last or the town halls that occurred prior to this?
Joanna: No, tonight’s debate isn’t representative of who Americans should be voting for. I mean, to be quite frank, both of these candidates are white, old, men. That’s okay I guess, but that isn’t representative of the America built on the backs of immigrants and minority groups. That isn’t representative of the thousands of women casting their votes each day. At least the moderator (who did a pretty great job) was a woman and a POC. But that doesn’t mean that the candidates are representative of anything. Neither of them can relate to the racism issues that come with being a POC in this country. Neither of them can relate to sexism, or homophobia, for that matter. They are representative of the candidates America has voted in for centuries though, sure.
Then again, 2020 isn’t really the year for change. America is coming off of four years with one of the most unique presidents we’ve ever had. There can’t be that “radical” sort of figure right now, a woman, a POC, an LGBTQ+ president just can’t happen right now because of the extremity in the GOP. What we saw tonight in the debate wasn’t anything substantially new. But we saw a calm, poised candidate going up against one who points fingers and shouts. This difference wasn’t highlighted as much tonight, but it was still there. I mean, with only a few days to go before one of the most consequential elections in our nation’s history, the undecided vote is dwindling. There wasn’t much to get out of tonight to begin with. To be honest, I don’t think I really learned anything.
Helen: This debate may not have been a representation of who America necessarily wants, but it was at least a more accurate representation of Joe Biden is and last debate was a very raw depiction of who Trump is. Tonight was far less combative and more normal than the previous debate, and it didn’t leave such a sense of panic on the stage. This debate dug into policy more than the previous one, though both candidates prefer to stick to more overarching arguments, anyway. This debate may not change many minds, but it could certainly solidify views. Biden and Trump both had to walk away tonight without losing any of their supporters, and for the most part there didn’t appear to be any damaging moments for either candidate. Trump is still working to recover after being harmed in the polls after the first debate, so it will be interesting to see what this debate does.
Sophia: Finally, who won tonight’s debate? Feel free to add now any final thoughts you’d like to elaborate on.
Joanna: Joe Biden won this debate because to be honest, Trump needed to have an out of the water performance to stand a chance of really winning. With Joe Biden in the double digits nationally, Trump needed to bank on Biden’s gaffes and flaws- and while they were still there, they weren’t at the intensity they needed to be at.
The two candidates spent tonight repeating policies we already know them for. There was nothing new really here. Joe Biden held himself steady throughout the night. That’s all he needed to do.
At the beginning, there were two strategies entering this debate. Donald Trump’s team hoped that without Trump’s constant interruptions, Biden would make more gaffes and embarrassing statements than ever before. Their hopes fell short. This was maybe one of the strongest performances Joe Biden has ever pulled off. He went on the offensive. He pushed the president on COVID-19, healthcare and race. He spoke to the American people through a collection of powerful anecdotes.
If I do not sound like a typical Washington politician, it’s because I’m NOT a politician. If I do not always play by the rules of the Washington Establishment, it’s because I was elected to fight for YOU, harder than anyone ever has before! https://t.co/gsFSgh2KPc pic.twitter.com/kNuIW02Dfc— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2020
Biden’s strategy coming into tonight was to stay steady. He did more than he had to do. He took the higher position. No more calling the president a clown or telling him to shut up. The man standing there was on higher ground. He didn’t lose his temper, didn’t make gaffes, didn’t let Trump capitalize on Hunter Biden.
Trump needed a miracle to win this debate. He needed to win it by a landslide. I don’t think he did that tonight. Thus, my winner is Joe Biden.
Helen: It’s difficult to determine who wins debates in a year when so many viewers are already fully confident in their choice going in, but Biden did not offer many moments that could be used in “sleepy Joe” smear campaigning and Trump didn’t have the standout night he needed. Because of those reasons, Biden was the winner tonight.
This was the final debate between the candidates and of the cycle, which sounds more dramatic than it felt, especially considering the numerous rounds of debates that Biden faced amongst his democratic peers, and the other two Republican candidates who debated without Trump. With the dramatics of the election that are about to ensue, tonight felt a bit more like the calm before a storm.
Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 23, 2020
I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years. pic.twitter.com/KhQIGGZHIH
Sophia: Thank you so much to tonight’s panelists. This concludes our coverage of the second and final Presidential Debate. With 100% of the vote, our staff gave tonight’s win to Joe Biden.
Moderator: Sophia Moore is a Culture and Political writer at the magazine. She served as the moderator for this debatePanel Members:
Joanna Hou is a Politics and Books writer at the magazine, as well as a social media intern.
Helen Ehrlich is a Politics and Music writer at the magazine. She is also the Co-Social Media Manager.
Image via C-SPAN