One rarely touted statistic that President Donald Trump can surely take credit for is bringing civic engagement to record levels.
A CBS/YouGov poll prior to the first presidential debate indicated that 41 percent of viewers tuned in strictly for the entertainment value.
By contrast, only 6 percent were undecided voters still waiting to make their decision.
During that debate, Trump delivered the red meat for his base, but Joe Biden answered in equal measure—or rather, initiated, according to some accounts—with his own pugnacious bickering.
Where the first debate offered more entertainment than substance, the second (and final) debate of the 2020 election offered something for the other 59 percent.
Facing the threat of having their mics cut and a moderator prepared to be far more forceful and assertive, Trump and Biden both stayed largely within the lines of decorum.
The president remained on his best behavior, even complimenting moderator Kristen Welker at one point after having spent the past week priming viewers for another two-on-one battle by highlighting her leftist bona fides on Twitter.
That may have been a favor to Welker, whose questions came off seeming more evenhanded than those of prior 2020 moderators Chris Wallace and Susan Page.
She, too, beamed at what she called a “fantastic debate” at the end, having had the bar lowered significantly by its only predecessor.
By the standards of any other campaign year, Thursday’s debate may, in fact, have seemed boisterous.
However, just as Trump missed the opportunity to fully articulate his policies in the first one, he over-corrected by failing to fully press Biden on what should now be a campaign-defining issue: his family business deals and the alarming ethical concerns that have arisen from the recovered laptop files of Biden’s son Hunter.
In a cruel twist of irony, Biden used his perceived advantage in likability to neutralize the attack.
“The character of the country is on the ballot—our character is on the ballot,” Biden chided voters.
“If this is true, then he’s in a corrupt politician, so don’t give me this stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” Trump answered before being cut off.
The president did his best to broach the issue of Biden’s own character problems during a segment on foreign policy. He touted the $3.5 million kickback that Hunter Biden received from the wife of a Moscow oligarch according to a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report released last month.
“I think you owe an explanation to the American people,” Trump said. “Regardless of me, I think you have to clean it up and talk to the American people.”
But Biden, who spent the better part of the past two weeks off the road preparing for the debate, came fully ready to deflect.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarky,” Biden said, continuing to claim—despite evidence to the contrary—that Hunter’s actions in Ukraine, China and elsewhere were entirely above board, and that he, personally, had never received any money from foreign governments.
Trump “doesn’t want to talk about the substance of issues,” Biden continued in a familiar refrain. “It’s not about his family and my family; it’s about your family,” he panned to the camera.
Facing what may be an unprecedented effort by mainstream media and social media to suppress the laptop story, Trump delved relatively little into the specifics.
He said nothing of the incriminating photos that allegedly show Hunter smoking crack and cavorting with a nude 14-year-old relative—as well as a text exchange indicating Joe Biden was aware of the behavior.
Even as one of Hunter Biden’s former business partners confirmed the authenticity of the emails on Wednesday and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said specifically that the laptop was not part of a Russian disinformation plot, the former vice president insisted that it was.
“You mean the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax,” Trump said, mocking the debunked conspiracy theory promoted by the Hillary Clinton campaign, with help from the FBI, last election.
But there, too, amid frustratingly little accountability to date for Obamagate’s deep-state perpetrators, Trump failed to fully wield his arsenal of outrage.
When Biden said, later in the debate, that cocaine should be decriminalized, Trump focused on making his case to the black community instead of pointing out Hunter Biden’s far-from-normal habits of drug and sexual abuse, enabled by his father’s access to power.
He also emphasized his own administration’s efforts to reform Biden’s failed 1994 criminal-justice bill rather than hammer Biden 2.0 for being too soft on crime.
Trump did succeed in bringing Biden’s moral failures back into focus on occasion, painting him as a typical career politician with a 47 year record of inaction.
“You keep talking about all these things you’re gonna do, and you’re gonna do this … I ran because of you,” Trump said, “because you did a poor job.”
He scored major points reminding viewers that it was the Obama–Biden administration that had constructed migrant detention centers that have been deceptively characterized as cages.
Of the 500 or so children who have yet to be claimed by family members following a short-lived separation policy, Trump pointed out that his policies had deterred human-smuggling coyotes and drug cartels from exploiting children at the border.
Those currently in detention “… are so well taken care of,” Trump said. “But just ask one question,” he told Welker. “Who built the cages? I’d love for you to ask him that.”
Several times during the debate, Trump sought to make a common-sense case for economic prosperity as the pathway to solving America’s problems—including those characterized by Democrats as “existential” crises.
On handling the corinavirus, Biden warned that America was “about to go into a dark winter” for which Trump lacked a clear vision.
By contrast, Trump countered in his closing remarks on leadership that “Success is going to bring us together.”
He warning that the economic policies of a Biden administration would usher in a “depression, the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
As he did in the first debate, Trump continued to call out Biden’s duplicity on fracking—an issue seen as crucial to winning battleground Pennsylvania—and he fact-check Biden’s frequent claims of his own Pennsylvania roots.
“Where I come from in Scranton [Pennsylvania] and Claymont [Delaware] the people don’t live off the stock market,” Biden said while attacking Trump’s economic policies.
Trump countered: “401ks are through the roof, stocks are through the roof and he doesn’t come from Scranton… He lived there for a short period of time, and then he left.”
Trump also forced Biden to acknowledge that part of his environmental plan involved the phasing out—or transitioning, as he characterized it—of America’s oil reliance in favor of less-reliable and more costly renewable energy sources.
“Basically, what he’s saying is that he’s going to destoy the oil industry,” Trump said. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”