Who won the final 2020 debate? Call it a draw.
The second and final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Thursday night was a relatively tame and sober affair. This was in large part thanks to the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC, who asked good sharp questions of both men. Partisans on either side will have their pet complaints, but I think you would be hard pressed to imagine another mainstream journalist willing to bring up, say, the Obama administration's record on deportations.
Most of the credit, though, must belong to the candidates themselves. The much-vaunted threat of turning off microphones did not materialize. (It is worth pointing out, however, that Welker interrupted the president far more often than she did Biden.) Both candidates interrupted each other with impunity and exceeded their allotted times. But they stopped short of last month's shouting match, which does not seem to have done either of them any favors.
Trump's weaknesses were on full display. On subjects ranging from health care to immigration to his own tax returns, he said things that might have been copied and pasted from his debates with Hillary Clinton four years ago. His plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with something "beautiful" remains elusive. There was more talk about Mexican rapists and murderers. The never-ending audit of his tax returns continues to be held up by unnamed deep-state operatives in the IRS. If 2016 was Trump Live, this was Hell Freezes Over.
His best moments came when he pushed back against lockdowns and when he pressed Biden on criminal justice. Over and over again he asked why, if Biden wants to reverse the policies for which he was arguably more responsible than any other member of his party, he did nothing about it in the decade and a half he spent in the Senate after 1994 or during his eight years as vice president. Biden had no answer. His half-hearted attempt to blame a GOP Congress was shut down immediately when the president pointed out that the First Step Act was passed by a Democratic House. "You have to convince them, Joe!"
Perhaps the most surprising thing was how ineffective Trump sounded at times in his attempts to address the New York Post's reporting on Biden's son, Hunter. A great deal of what he said was incredibly vague; the gravity of the accusations was, I suspect, lost on the vast majority of viewers who have not already read the articles to which he was referring. The only memorable moment from that portion of the evening was his reference to Biden as "the big man."
Meanwhile Biden's performance was more or less in line with what his campaign would have hoped for. His speech was not always clear or fluid, but he made his points about Trump more or less effectively. More important, he managed to avoid having to say so much as a word about court packing, the Supreme Court, abortion, and a number of other issues. His single most effective response of the evening came when he pointed out that for all his talk about the reform bill he signed at the behest of Mrs. Kanye West, Trump spent most of the 1990s arguing that the infamous crime bill did not go far enough and agitating for the execution of the so-called Central Park Five. I am not sure he did himself any favors by saying unambiguously that he wanted to work toward the elimination of the oil industry.
I think that all things considered the evening was effectively a draw. Trump made the case against lockdowns and school closings to the best of his ability. Biden met expectations, which had rightly been modest.
Will it make a difference in the waning days of an election in which 50 million people have already been allowed to vote? Probably not.