Yesterday was a milestone in our long national nightmare: the last debate of the 2020 election cycle! Well, unless we really are in a time loop. As FiveThirtyEight points out, probably more than a quarter of the votes in this election (including mine) have already been cast, and although voters who dislike both candidates and are still undecided in the last two weeks of the campaign were a deciding factor in 2016, almost nobody is in that category now. Not to mention, even if there is a shift in the polls among those left, there’s no guarantee that it would be in Trump’s favor. So as you may have guessed from my piece last week, the biggest question on my mind going in was “who is this for?” That question only got stronger the more of the debate I watched, because it was, again, pretty severely awful.
Most effective attacks: Right at the beginning, both candidates delivered… well, not great arguments by any means, but probably several useful soundbites for their respective sides of the ongoing “open the economy” vs. “don’t get more people sick” argument. If viewers turned off the debate after the first segment, they might have believed this was a useful exercise in some way.
Best answer: Much like he did in his town hall, Biden sounded more prepared for listing off specific environmental plans and contrasting them specifically to Trump’s. Trump helped, uh, create that contrast too, and not in a good way. His responses to Biden’s explanation were absolutely insane. Democrats apparently want to spend a hundred trillion dollars and demolish all buildings with big windows, according to him, and that seems like the kind of outlandish thing that will stick in the minds of viewers. Other than that, it was pretty much all downhill from the weak beginning.
Worst answer: So many. Most of them from Trump. If I had to pick one, I think it would be his answer to the final question, about what he would say if he is reelected to people who didn’t vote for him. His answer was rambling and irrelevant and sounded like he didn’t understand the question he had just been asked.
Closest I can come to giving Trump credit for something: Trump said a few things that might actually resonate with people who don’t follow news obsessively and/or only weakly support Biden. First, Joe Biden’s criminal justice record in the Senate is bad, as was brought up in great abundance during the primaries. Second, Hunter Biden does sound to me like he takes advantage of his father’s position, even if the recent Giuliani-generated “scandal” about him is almost certainly absolute garbage. If Joe Biden were running against someone with a sparkling record, maybe that would mean something. But coming from Donald Trump, that is all so audaciously hypocritical that I have to take a break from snarkiness for some good old-fashioned outrage.
Uh-oh, actual rant incoming: I mean, come on. On the criminal justice policy side, this is someone who says torture is good, responded to racism in policing with rants that show absolute disregard for Black people’s legitimate complaints (and probably also incredible ignorance of how numbers work), pardoned one sheriff infamous for his racism and terrible jail conditions and allegedly tried to appoint another to be Homeland Security’s liaison with law enforcement (Clarke joined a pro-Trump Super PAC instead), and is actively making our court system more extreme and punitive. On the personal and family shadiness side, this is someone who, along with his children, misused a charity as a slush fund, won’t prove whether he is handling conflicts of interest appropriately, and whose daughter received suspiciously-timed trademark approvals from China, the tip of an iceberg of corrupt use of the presidency for family and business interests that a more useful Congress would have immediately investigated. Oh, and in one special crossover between criminal justice horror and personal corruption, there was also that time a private prison company held a conference at a resort that Trump owns. These seem to be the lines of attack that Trump is most enthusiastically going for, though: accusing Biden of having done things in the past that he himself is currently blatantly doing. I guess he might be able to lie his way to flipping some voters on criminal justice (a topic on which a sizable minority of both independents and partisans think both candidates are about the same), but opinions about Biden’s honesty about his son were already surprisingly strong before this. I guess if it accomplishes anything, it might push some of the independents who distrust Biden in general to not vote? I certainly don’t believe they’ll flip to supporting Trump — they distrust him even more.
Okay. Let me take a deep breath and try again.
Answer that sounds the weirdest without context: Biden saying we need “more pods”.
Answer that sounds the scariest without context: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe.” — Biden, who was criticizing Trump’s strategy of trying to control North Korea by personally befriending Kim Jong-Un.
Answer that sounds the fakest, but is not: Trump’s line about “a trillion trees” just plain sounds made up. Right? Well, much to my surprise, it’s a real reforestation project that Trump really agreed to commit the US to.
Best evidence that Donald Trump doesn’t understand taxes: As Bob Woodward described in Fear, Trump fundamentally doesn’t understand what tariffs are. In the debate, he seemed to believe that his trade war has caused China, not the US, to pay for the subsidies to offset the losses of US farmers, and was visibly confused when Biden contradicted him.
Best evidence that Donald Trump specifically doesn’t understand his own taxes: He talked about prepaying taxes as if that’s somehow unusual or a credit to him. “Prepayment” is just the normal way taxes in the US work.
Most bipartisanly-inconvenient polling data: I have very bad news for both candidates if they think a COVID vaccine will be widely accepted, no matter when it comes out.
Talking point I hope to never hear again after this election: Any variation on the sentence “Nobody but Abraham Lincoln has done as much for the black community as Donald Trump”. After this campaign, Lincoln is probably spinning in his grave so quickly you could put an induction coil around him and power a city.
Biggest disappointment: Nobody got muted to stop an interruption or over-time answer.
Best overall debate performance of the 2020 election cycle: Even though he wasn’t my favorite option in terms of actual policy, I love Cory Booker as a public speaker. Please run again so we can have a candidate who makes us feel optimism.
Worst overall debate performance: Ha, you thought I would say Trump, didn’t you? Have you forgotten Marianne Williamson?
And so, good people of Pyramid, your debate correspondent is signing off until… TBD.
Cover photo: Alex Gakos / Shutterstock.com. Used under license.
Debate hate-watcher and occasional essayist.