The mute button, or at least the threat of it, seemed to work. In the second presidential debate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden were more restrained.
The candidates allowed each other to speak. They used respectful tones. Even when they went on the attack, they did so in a calm, deliberate manner.
This time, the content of what the candidates are saying might be what the American public remembers from the debate – not the chaotic manner in which it was delivered.
Covid takes center stage
The Trump campaign complained that this debate was supposed to be focused on foreign policy – perhaps allowing the president to tout what he sees as his accomplishments in the Middle East, trade and Syria and go after Biden on his son’s business ties to China.
Instead, like earlier debates, it started on the coronavirus pandemic – a topic the American public cares most about, polls suggest.
Donald Trump, once again touted a vaccine he said would be ready “in weeks”. He offered personal testimony to the power of the new drugs to treat the disease and boasted that he was now “immune”.
Biden, not surprisingly, went on the attack. He pointed out Trump had repeatedly promised the disease would disappear on its own. He said there were 220,000 Americans dead and there could be another 200,000 by the end of the year.
In the back and forth between the two candidates, Trump continued to offer hope that things were getting better and businesses and schools should reopen. And when Trump said that people were “learning to live” with the disease, Biden pounced.
“People are learning to live with it?” he asked. “People are learning to die with it.”
At one point, Trump offered an answer that he said was “perhaps just to finish this”. The president, clearly, was eager move on to different subjects.
The inevitable Hunter Biden exchange
Trump telegraphed early and often that he would make Biden’s son Hunter a topic of the debate, and it wasn’t long before the president brought up the former vice-president’s family.
He alleged that Biden personally profited from his son’s business dealings in Ukraine and China, citing recent news stories based on information allegedly gleaned from Hunter Biden’s laptop computer.
Biden’s defence was a blanket denial, followed by changing the subject to Trump’s taxes and business ties to China. That forced the president to spend time explaining about how he really “pre-paid” millions of dollars in taxes and again saying he’d someday release his tax returns.
Trump was counting on drawing blood with his attacks on Biden’s family, making this into a controversy that finally pulls his front-running opponent back to earth. Chances are this night won’t do that.
An argument over immigration
Four years ago, Trump rode a hard line on immigration to the Republican nomination and, ultimately, the White House. When the topic came up in Thursday night’s debate, however, he tried to downplay some of the more extreme steps he’s taken while in office.
When asked about his administration’s policy of separating the children from the parents of undocumented migrants, for instance, Trump tried to turn the conversation to the detention facilities – “cages,” in Trump’s term – created by the Obama administration to house unaccompanied minor immigrants.
Biden, flashing indignation, noted that the children Trump was detaining came over with their parents and that the policy was making the US a “laughing stock”. For many American voters, the audio of separated children crying for their parents may still be relatively fresh in their minds.
Trump’s response, that those children were “so well taken care of,” in “facilities that are so clean” probably didn’t help his cause.
Trump finds his footing on criminal justice
In the first presidential debate, Trump talked himself into trouble when the topic turned to race relations, as he danced around whether to directly condemn white supremacist groups. This time around, the president was considerably more nimble.
He boasted about his cross-party criminal justice reform and funding for historically black colleges. He attacked Biden for his sponsorship of a draconian crime bill in the 1990s that led to a sharp rise in the number of black Americans in prisons.
And, perhaps most potently, when Biden began talking about his proposals for reform, he questioned why the former vice-president didn’t accomplish more when he served with President Barack Obama.
“It’s all talk but no action with these politicians,” Trump said. “Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years to get it done.”
Anyone who lived through the “tough on crime” 1990s in the US would probably be shocked by this debate exchange, where both candidates talked about the number of felons to whom they gave clemency and their efforts at reducing the number of incarcerated Americans.
As the mass demonstrations against institutional racism demonstrated earlier this year, the times have indeed changed.
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