When the hour and 1 ½ hour was over Tuesday night, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News thanked President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden for a “robust” final presidential debate. Commentators adjudged that to be an improvement over the chaotic, sometimes ill-mannered first debate of Sept. 29 in Cleveland.
There was one change in the format of the event at Belmont University in Nashville: When Trump and Biden gave their initial two-minute responses to Welker’s questions, the other’s microphone was turned off. That did not prevent back-and-forth exchanges and on numerous occasions Welker allowed both men extra time for verbal sparring.
The debate Tuesday night came just 12 days before Election Day on Nov. 3, at a time when close to one-quarter of the nation’s registered voters already have cast ballots.
The scheduled second debate, an Oct. 15 town hall in Miami, was canceled after the Commission on Presidential Debates decided that, because of COVID-19 concerns, the event would be virtual and Trump said that he would not appear under that format. The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, was held Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 8.45 million and the death toll climbed to 223,000, the response to the pandemic was Tuesday night’s opening topic.
Trump contended that his actions prevented an even greater death toll. “We’re rounding the corner,” he said, adding that a vaccine is “going to be announced in weeks,” a timetable more advanced than has been outlooked by public health experts and the pharmaceutical companies currently putting prospective vaccine formulas through human trials.
Biden cited projections that another 200,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by the year’s end and warned “We’re about to go into a dark winter.” When Trump said that America was learning to “live” with the virus, Biden retorted that “People are learning to die with it” and decried various Trump predictions earlier in the year that the virus would be a short-lived threat.
They continued to disagree about the impact of shutting down segments of American society and business in response to the pandemic.
“We have to open our country or we’re not going to have a country,” Trump said.
“We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Biden said of the balance between regulation and reopening.
The rhetorical fur flew more freely when the debate shifted to national security and attempts by Russia and Iran to interfere with the American election process.
“They will pay a price if I’m elected,” Biden said. “They’re interfering with American sovereignty.” Biden then said that Trump has not been tough enough in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue, adding that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers and advisers, was being used as a pawn by the Russians.
The president said, “There’s been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump” and took advantage of Biden’s comments to reference a newspaper story about monies that Biden’s son Hunter reportedly collected in his dealings with an Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.
In response to Biden citing a newspaper report about Trump’s taxes, the president said that he has prepaid tens of millions of dollars in taxes and that a bank account related to his business exploration in China had been closed two years before he began his presidential campaign.
After a continued exchange about China, Biden said, “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.”
Trump mocked Biden’s effort to change the topic, saying “Let’s get off this China thing. Just a typical politician. That’s why I got elected.”
The Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation often referred to as “Obamacare,” was the next subject worked over by Trump and Biden.
“Obamacare is no good,” Trump said, touting success in removing the individual mandate portion of the plan and adding that replacing ACA with a “much better” plan was predicated on Republicans not only retaining the White House but also winning control of the House.
Biden rejected Trump’s claim that his plan would eliminate the health care policies that 180 million Americans receive through their jobs and said that 20 million Americans would lose health insurance if the ACA went away and that 10 million people have lost their coverage during the pandemic.
Biden said that he wants to add a public option to the ACA, which Trump termed a step toward socialized medicine.
When Trump called one plan to stimulate the COVID-damaged economy “a bailout of badly run, high crime, all run by Democrats, cities and states,” Biden replied, “I’m going to be an American president. I don’t see red states and blue states. What I see are the United States.”
Next up was a question centered on a report by lawyers unable to locate the parents of 545 children who were separated by authorities from their parents when the families crossed into the United States from Mexico.
Biden called the situation “criminal” and said that “It makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of what we are as a nation.”
Trump said that these children were brought into the country by smugglers known as “coyotes” and “lots of bad people” and that his administration is “trying very hard” to reunite them with their parents.
A question about race in America and “the talk” that African Americans have with their children about how to respond to police yielded distinctly different responses.
Biden said that he never had to tell his daughter what Black parents must tell their children. “There is institutional racism in America,” Biden said. “We’ve never lived up to it,” the creed that “all men and women are created equal.”
Biden acknowledged that provisions of the 1994 crime bill that he backed as a senator, which had resulted in the increased incarceration of African American men, had been a “mistake,” particularly the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. What is needed, he said, were drug courts and rehabilitation, rather than jail time for people with substance abuse problems.
“With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, nobody has done what I’ve done” for Black Americans, Trump said, citing initiatives on criminal justice reform, prison reform, support for historically Black colleges and universities, and creation of “opportunity zones” for investment.
Trump asked why, after some 47 years in government and eight as vice president, Biden did not get done things that he wants to accomplish if elected president. “Joe, I ran because of you. I ran because of Barack Obama. Because you did a poor job,” he said.
As part of his answer to a question about the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump declared himself to be “the least racist person in this room.”
Biden countered that Trump “pours fuel on every single racist fire,” citing the president’s comments about Mexicans and his restrictions on travel to the United States by Muslims from several nations. “This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
At the end, Welker asked each man how, if they win, their inaugural address will speak to those who did not support them.
“We have to make our country totally successful, as it was before the plague came in from China,” Trump said. “Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success.”
In his address, Biden said he would state “I’m an American president. I am the president of all of you, whether you voted for me or not.