Donald Trump and Joe Biden press their mute buttons

But with 49m people having voted already, creditable performances in the final debate probably won’t change much

10/23/2020 2:52:00 PM

Donald Trump's untheatrical performance highlighted the thinness of his positive case and his tendency to occupy all sides of every issue. Joe Biden's evening was not flawless, however

But with 49m people having voted already, creditable performances in the final debate probably won’t change much

DONALD TRUMP and Joe Biden are not merely the two oldest candidates to contest a presidential election. They also may be the most prolix. Their speaking styles differ—Mr Trump riffs while Mr Biden rambles; Mr Trump nurses personal grievances and Mr Biden tells stories—but they both love to talk. However, in the run-up to last night’s debate, the campaign’s second and last, both campaigns signalled that they wanted their candidates to allow the other more speaking time.

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Mr Trump’s campaign believed that the more Mr Biden spoke, the likelier he was to ramble and lose his train of thought, which would give credence to their charge that he has lost his mental acuity. Mr Biden’s camp—judging by the first debate’s aftermath, in which Mr Biden’s polling lead grew after Trump repeatedly interrupted, hectored and insulted him—reasoned that the more airtime Mr Trump gets, the less voters like him. In keeping quiet, both candidates had help from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan body that produces such encounters. Wary of repeating the chaos of the first debate, it muted the candidates’ microphones when the other was giving opening statements for each of the night’s six sections.

Debates rarely matter much, and last night’s affair is probably no exception. Both candidates turned in reasonably steady performances, though Mr Trump returned to form in the last half-hour. Their exchanges were revealing, highlighting their difference in character and occasionally even policy. (Credit for that belongs partly to Kristen Welker of NBC, by far the best moderator of this cycle.) But with Mr Biden’s steady and sizeable polling lead, and nearly 50m people having voted—around one-third of the forecast electorate—Mr Trump’s discipline may have come too late to help him.

The president’s untheatrical performance also highlighted the thinness of his positive case and his tendency to occupy all sides of every issue. He claimed “full responsibility” for America’s covid response just before saying “it’s not my fault”. Covid is “a horrible disease that came from China”, but “it will go away...we are rounding the corner.” He warned that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would destroy small businesses but said he would consider implementing it in his second term. He wants clean air and water but opposes environmental regulation. Pressed about the morality of separating parents and children at America’s southern border, he boasted that the children “are in facilities that were so clean”. He gave viewers no hint of his substantive policy priorities for a second term, other than a desire “to make our country totally successful”. Mr Biden, by contrast, proved fluent in the details of his health-care, climate-change and immigration policies. On the last of these he promised to propose a pathway to citizenship for 11m undocumented immigrants within his first hundred days in office.

Policy has never been central to Mr Trump’s appeal, and he has long been more skilled at tearing down opponents than arguing in his own favour. The core of his pitch is the one that defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago: his opponent is a “corrupt politician” who got nothing done during his decades in Washington. He claimed that Mr Biden has received millions of dollars from China, Ukraine and Russia, money that shows up nowhere in the 22 years of tax returns he has released.

Long-telegraphed attacks on Mr Biden’s troubled son Hunter—that he traded on his father’s name in a business venture in China that kicked up some equity to Mr Biden himself—may have appealed to voters who have followed the byzantine story and are primed to distrust the Bidens. But such voters are probably already in Mr Trump’s corner. It is hard to see the allegations moving the undecideds. In any event, the allegations, as more than 50 former senior intelligence officials noted in a letter released on October 19th, have “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation”. (A Fox News reporter tweeted a screenshot purporting to show an email exchange between Hunter and a business partner, on a phone visibly connected to a Russian mobile network.)

Mr Biden’s performance was not flawless. Late in the debate he called the Proud Boys, a thuggish right-wing group, the “Poor Boys”, and misquoted Mr Trump’s instructions to them. Republicans see an opening in his vow to wean America off oil, which may cost him votes in battleground states with large extractive industries, such as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On the other hand, the fact that Texas, which last voted for a Democratic president in 1976, is a battleground state at all highlights the peril in which Mr Trump finds himself less than two weeks before the polls close.

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You guys in the media will be the greatest loosers in all this. Your bias has become so glaringly. Joe Biden looked like Trumps father! Old, gaunt, pale, sickly! He doesn’t have the stamina to lead this country You lose your brains, you're no longer an economist because you have your heads in the dirty swamp

Economist used to be relatively unbiased. When they made the statement ‘Trump has only 10% chance of winning months ago’, they’ve chosen to take the lead on bias. As they stated about others news outlets - bias leads to misinformation. Shame.

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USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by 7 points in pivotal PennsylvaniaA majority of likely Pennsylvania voters say they do not support adding justices to the Supreme Court. Biden forgets... even with COVID... we have to EAT.. someone has to work! Truckers, grocery workers, nurses.. they keep this country going! no lockdowns! Lol... poll asked 75% of DEMOCRATS... what a joke I ignore polls myself. They mean nothing. The only poll that counts will be the one on November 3.

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