Joe Biden and President Trump faced off for the second and final time on a debate stage in Nashville. Both men had plenty at stake, even though very few voters remain undecided. Four veteran Los Angeles Times journalists assessed the candidates’ performances, round by round: Washington bureau chief David Lauter, political reporter Seema Mehta, California columnist Gustavo Arellano and White House reporter Eli Stokols.
White House bureau chief
This is a far more sober, controlled debate. Score one for the debate commission and its rules that now include muting the candidate’s microphone when it’s the other candidate’s turn. But the opening topic — the coronavirus — is simply not a good one for President Trump.
“This is a worldwide problem, but I’ve been congratulated by other world leaders,” Trump declared, once again making the issue about himself, rather than the public at large. Joe Biden used the time to tout the specifics of his plans. Trump, by contrast, fell into the trap of relitigating his fights with Dr. Anthony Fauci and repeatedly talked about the problems caused by shutdowns — but the majority of the public puts a priority on public health over opening the economy.
Takeaway: The voters got a much better look at the two candidates’ differences on the virus; that’s probably not helpful to the president.
Some ‘facts’ just aren’t so. That much was certain, especially for President Trump, as he and former Vice President Joe Biden met Thursday for a final debate.
The difference between Trump and Biden was clear from the moment they took the stage — Biden wearing a mask, Trump maskless. A discussion of COVID-19 clearly displayed the stark differences between the two candidates. The president expressed his belief that the nation must learn to live with the virus until a vaccine is available. Biden countered that the president means the nation needs to learn to die with the disease because of Trump’s failure to deal with this virus. One notable change from the two men’s prior meeting: no real interruptions.
Takeaway: The voters are winners tonight so far because they can actually hear the policy differences between the two men on the ballot.
“He said we’re learning to live with it? People are learning to die with it” — Biden, with the line of the campaign. Trump tried to be reserved, so it was refreshing to actually hear what he had to say — and what he had to say is the same tired brays of blaming China, promising a vaccine in weeks, and that the H1N1 swine flu could’ve killed 700,000. But it didn’t, while COVID-19 has killed over 220,000.
Takeaway: Trump still cannot explain the failure of his administration.
Right off the bat, Trump got a question about the coronavirus he’s gotten likely hundreds of times and, despite the moderator noting that cases are spiking again, went right to his rosy talking points, claiming that the virus “will soon be gone” and that the country is “rounding the turn.” Referencing his own case, he declared himself “immune.”
Biden began by mentioning the mounting death toll. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.” Trump, he said, “has no plan.” Although the conversation was more respectful than during the first debate, Trump’s composure began to fray by the end of the segment as he deviated from the topic at hand to attack Biden with unserious hyperbole — claiming he would shut down the country for just one case — and sniping about Biden’s boffo fundraising, claiming he has connections to Wall Street.
Takeaway: The onus is more on the president to have an explanation on this subject, and he offered more of the same. The main difference from the first debate, which devolved into nasty attacks from the jump, was a bit more civility, although it would have been hard to have any less.
A look at where President Trump and Joe Biden stand on key issues in the 2020 election, including healthcare, immigration, police reform and climate.
Before the debate, Trump’s aides said he would lean heavily into questions surrounding the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. He waited until the second round before quickly accusing Biden of having benefited from foreign money. “Let me be straight here, I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life,” Biden responded. And so it went.
“There’s a reason why he’s bring up all this malarkey,” Biden said a few minutes later. “It’s not about his family or my family. It’s about your family.” Let’s assume that Trump succeeded in raising some questions in voters’ minds. If that was going to dramatically affect the election, Trump would have been ahead long ago. He’s not.
Takeaway: So far, Trump’s big gambit of stressing Hunter Biden’s problems hasn’t drawn much blood.
A discussion that started off about election security devolved into allegations about Trump’s and Biden’s finances. Trump tried to fend off reports that he paid $750 in taxes but once again refused to commit to when he would release his tax returns. He tried to raise unproven allegations about Biden’s son’s dealings, and to paint Biden as a well-off man with houses around the nation — a depiction that doesn’t fit with what most Americans know about the former vice president.
Takeaway: It’s hard to see how this exchange is helpful to voters concerned about their jobs, their kids’ schools, their health insurance and other kitchen-table issues. And it got away from the critical issue of electoral security one day after federal agencies said Iran and Russia are trying to meddle in the election.
“Americans don’t panic; he panics.” Another Biden homer. Trump actually sounded reasonable when he said that you can’t keep restaurants encased in plexiglass, and that it will hurt the bottom line of restaurants. That is a real thing (my wife runs a restaurant), and Biden really didn’t have a response to that. But Trump — again — became his own worst enemy by rambling at the end about how he can raise so much more money than anyone else. So far, he hasn’t.
Takeaway: Whatever advice Trump got, he’s starting to forget it.
On the subject of foreign interference, Trump sounded more like his usual self: defensive, combative and conspiratorial. This offered the president his big chance to focus attention on unproven corruption allegations about Biden and his son Hunter’s business overseas. But his big swing at the Democratic nominee came without a clear explanation of the murky details supporting his allegations.
Biden denied any wrongdoing and noted that he, unlike Trump, has released his tax returns. He also noted that Trump has a secret Chinese bank account and sought, toward the end of the segment, to assert that Trump doesn’t want to talk about pocketbook issues that affect real families. Trump bristled, calling the attempted pivot that of a “typical politician.”
Takeaway: On the substance, it’s hard to see how these allegations will matter much to voters. And Trump’s more agitated tone and tenor — he snapped twice at the moderator as she tried to interject — in this round was a familiar look, but probably not his best.
Trump made a strenuous effort to tie Biden to “socialized medicine” — a bogeyman that Republicans have successfully wielded for years. Biden had a ready comeback, however, that he ran against, and defeated, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the other candidates in the primaries who actually do support a government-run healthcare program. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden scoffed. “He’s running against Joe Biden.”
The debate over healthcare also allowed Biden to repeatedly stress that Trump’s administration is trying to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act and has no plan to replace it.
Takeaway: A debate on healthcare was never going to be helpful for Trump — the public doesn’t trust him or his party on that topic — and about the best one can say on his side is that it could have been worse.
The discussion over healthcare illustrates the quandary Trump faces in the 2020 election — he is trying to paint Biden as a wide-eyed liberal, when, in fact, the former vice president has a fairly moderate tack and policy. Trump falsely said Biden wants to eliminate private insurance; the Democrat’s healthcare plan does not eliminate private insurance.
This segment also showcased moderator Kristen Welker’s skills. The NBC White House correspondent has faced baseless arrows in recent days from Republicans because her parents donated to Democrats. She has deftly moderated the debate, keeping the president relatively on track, to the point that he paused at one point to say: “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”
Takeaway: I am totally fan-girling Welker.
Trump’s best exchange was his argument against a $15 federal minimum wage. He didn’t once bash Biden, laid out a clear argument against it, and seemed to be on the side of small businesses. If Trump had only stuck to that during the healthcare section instead of bringing up socialism and Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he would’ve had a far better night. He didn’t, and he hasn’t.
Takeaway: Trump is too obsessed with the stock market.
Biden’s grin spoke volumes as Trump delivered a familiar monologue about Obamacare. “What we’d like to do is terminate it,” the president said again, claiming he’ll come up with a “much better ... brand new beautiful healthcare.” Asked what he’d do should the Supreme Court overturn the Affordable Care Act, Biden offered a three-point response, promising to add a public option, protect preexisting conditions and reassuring Americans on private healthcare plans that he supports private plans.
Trump claimed that Biden “wants socialized medicine,” then recanted, claiming that it was actually Sanders and Harris who would be demanding a government takeover of healthcare. “He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else.”
Takeaway: This is the issue Democrats won with in 2018 and are eager to emphasize again in 2020. Trump is making it too easy for them.
Immigration and crime have been the hot-button issues that propelled Trump into the White House as he played on the anxieties of conservative white Americans. As the debate turned to those topics, Biden unleashed some of his strongest attacks on Trump, stressing the administration’s separation of children from their parents at the border — more than 500 of whom have still not been reunited — and Trump’s unwillingness to denounce white supremacist groups. Trump shot back with talking points that are popular with his core supporters, but largely unknown to most of the rest of the country.
Takeaway: These are two of the toughest issues for Trump — topics on which the public has little faith in his leadership; he avoided further inflaming matters, but did himself little good.
The heart-wrenching tale of 545 children separated at the border from their parents, and whose parents now can’t be found, provided one of the most emotional moments of the debate. Trump argued that the children were brought over the border by cartels, and tried to turn to the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
Biden fought back forcefully to return to the children, saying their treatment “violates every notion of who we are as a nation.” He added, “Those kids are alone. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
The president countered by praising the conditions the children are held in. “They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that are so clean.”
Takeaway: For suburban moms who are tucking their babies in at night — a critical voting bloc — it’s incredibly difficult to see how the president’s message will resonate.
I was going to write something about the immigration section of this debate, but all I can hear was Trump saying only the people with the “lowest IQs” show up for immigration hearings. The ghost of Madison Grant is strong with this one. Biden has had to fight off the progressive wing of the Democrats on his record on immigration and criminal justice, and he acknowledged his errors of the past and didn’t even try to explain them. All I can think about with Trump and criminal justice is his very bad imitation of Biden — the president is no Jason Sudeikis. He can’t even rise to the lows of Jim Carrey.
Takeaway: My father got deported multiple times yet made a life for himself here. His four children are all college graduates; three of them earned master’s degrees.
Immigration, which dominated the 2016 campaign, has been a peripheral issue in this year’s race. Trump, who sold himself as the most restrictionist candidate four years ago, struggled to defend the most controversial facet of his approach to the border, detaining and separating hundreds of migrant children from their families. “They built cages,” Trump claimed of Democrats, repeating the bogus claim again. “Who built the cages, Joe?” Biden, acknowledging the failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill during Obama’s presidency, which was blocked by House Republicans, vowed to protect “Dreamers” and pursue reform again.
Trump was actually scoring points on the topic of race, dinging Biden for supporting the 1994 crime bill and touting his signing of criminal justice reform. But the segment unraveled somewhat after Biden spoke into the camera, telling viewers, “You know who I am; you know who he is.” Trump, eager to fire back, diverted the conversation to the confusing corruption allegations he outlined earlier: “Don’t give me this stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” Trump said.
Takeaway: If you’re a fan of Trump’s immigration policy, you’re likely in his camp already. If there are any swing voters left out there, it’s hard to see them being won over by his rhetoric casting immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists” and his suggestion that the only released detainees who show up for their hearings have a “low IQ.”
If this had been the first debate of the campaign, it would have been a decent outing for Trump. He might not have gained much ground, but he wouldn’t have lost much either. But it’s not the first debate. That one was disastrous for Trump, and he entered this one trailing Biden by a wide margin. Unlike that first debate, this one featured some clear exchanges of views. And it gave Trump the opportunity to launch some attacks on Biden. But none of them seemed to draw much blood or knock the challenger off his stride.
Biden gave cogent, clear answers about his positions, including on climate change, the final topic of the debate, where he stressed the job-creating promises of renewable energy, but where his pledge to “transition away from the oil industry” may hurt him. Overall, Biden managed to belie the image Trump likes to paint of him as a doddering old man, which was probably more important than any of the policy specifics.
Takeaway: Call this a draw, but for Trump, a draw isn’t good enough.
Biden arguably made his greatest misstep of the night in the debate’s final moments when he inartfully described his position on the eventual phase-out of fossil fuels. Trump jumped on it and urged voters in states like Texas and Pennsylvania to pay attention. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the vice president’s words featured in ads promoting the president in oil-rich states.
But overall, the final debate between Trump and Biden reinforced well-known policy differences between the two men. It’s difficult to see much new ground broken during this debate. I keep focusing on Kristen Welker’s moderation, but it felt like the high point of the debate. For undecided voters — if indeed they still exist at this last date — they were able to hear two very different paths for this nation, in part because of Welker’s steady hand.
Takeaway: Biden laid out his vision for the future of the nation, and laughed off Trump’s barbs. The president tried to raise unsubstantiated allegations about Biden’s family’s finances. The debate largely tread over familiar ground. One notable difference was the president’s behavior — he didn’t constantly interrupt his rival or the moderator. That was an improvement for him. But it’s hard to see the debate having a major impact on the polls.
Biden got cocky in the climate-change round — and Trump’s gleeful, whispered “ooohs” are testament to that. Goading Trump into finding video of him allegedly claiming he wants fracking to end? Saying that he wants to phase out the oil industry “over time”? Expect commercials on these points to flood the states Trump shouted out at the end: Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma.
But this exchange was all Trump was really able to get out of Biden, who mostly stuck to his calm script and landed far more zingers than the president, although few comebacks to Trump’s smackdowns (like the question about who built the cages where Central American children were kept ... by Trump). In the closing statements, Trump might’ve had a chance to reach out to those who don’t agree with him. Instead, he essentially stated that the country will be destroyed if Biden wins. Biden? He welcomes Trump supporters to his camp. But will any accept the invite?
Takeaway: We saw glimpses of a calm, reasoned Trump. I’ve seen it in the past. I actually listen. But the Roy Cohn that functions as his id just can’t resist the urge to slam, insult and evade. Is that a way to get all Americans together?
The bar for president Trump was on the floor after the Cleveland debate, and he cleared it with a comparatively more disciplined performance, one that likely won’t do additional damage to down-ballot Republicans. But it’s unlikely he delivered the sort of performance that could have changed the direction of the race.
Trump, who continued to espouse unpopular, defiant positions on healthcare and the pandemic, was still frequently hectoring, interrupting and uncontrolled, delivering familiar rally riffs on the dangers of windmills and claiming to have done more for Black people “than any president but Abraham Lincoln.” And his callousness about migrant children separated from their parents could hurt him with undecided voters.
Biden withstood most of Trump’s punches, including those attempting to introduce unproven corruption allegations, often simply by laughing to himself as Trump spoke. And gave as good as he got; but he faltered in the final segment under a barrage of questioning from the president, acknowledging that he indeed wants to phase out oil as a source of energy over time, a comment that Trump will certainly weaponize with voters in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Biden emphasized character and bipartisanship several times, promising to be a president for the entire country. But Trump also hammered one line of questioning effectively, asking Biden why he hadn’t been able to accomplish the things he is now proposing during a long career in Washington.
Takeaway: You can call it a draw, but it’s an improvement for Trump. It may not be enough, but if the president somehow pulls out a win in Pennsylvania, Biden’s answers on energy in the final minutes of this debate will likely be the reason why.
David Lauter: Lauter is the Washington bureau chief and has covered Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House and four presidential campaigns.
Seema Mehta: Before the 2020 campaign, Mehta reported on three previous presidential races and gubernatorial, Senate and mayoral contests.
Gustavo Arellano: Arellano writes columns about California and the West. He previously worked at OC Weekly as a reporter and editor and wrote the ¡Ask a Mexican! column.
Eli Stokols: White House reporter Stokols is a veteran of the Wall Street Journal and Politico, where he covered the 2016 presidential campaign.