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Larry Donnelly: Biden did just fine, so he won the debate

In a much calmer debate than we’ve seen, Trump may have taken the night on points, but all Biden had to do was not mess up, and he was in the clear.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE PREVALENT THEME in the lead-in to the second and final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee was that it represented Donald Trump’s last chance to wound Joe Biden and to alter the dynamics of the race. 

The bottom line is that he didn’t inflict any serious damage and this showdown won’t significantly influence the result of the election.

As a first point, it is important to say that the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, did an outstanding job.  She was authoritative and clearly in charge, yet deliberately not a central protagonist in the discussion, from start to finish. 

Her task was undeniably easier than the one faced by Chris Wallace in the candidates’ first clash because the two foes, President Trump, in particular, were far better behaved.  This was an infinitely more dignified affair. 

A blow that failed to land

The Harvard-educated White House correspondent and first woman of colour to referee a presidential debate in three decades deserves kudos nonetheless.

Since the discovery of a laptop of disputed provenance with inculpatory emails and other disturbing content as to Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere, Trump’s most ardent supporters have alleged that the mainstream media has been engaged in a cover-up and would not give this “smoking gun” the attention it warrants. 

On the stage last night, they anticipated that their man would force the Democratic nominee into a defensive posture.

Indeed, Trump raised the topic and Biden was questioned about it by Welker.  There was no substantial harm done to the former vice president, though. 

My own suspicion is that a majority of Americans have probably formed a view that Hunter Biden’s ethics are not a big issue in an electoral contest against the backdrop of an unprecedented pandemic. 

Moreover, given how widespread the problem of addiction is, many will understand the bad decisions that the troubled individual made and can identify with his father’s reticence, borne out of love, to be harder on his son.

More tolerable Trump

On the whole, Trump put in a considerably superior performance than in the first encounter. In fairness, the only way to go was up. The content wasn’t much different than when the two men met in Cleveland in September.

But the manner of his delivery improved dramatically.  For once, it seems, he listened to his close advisers who had reportedly been begging him to take it down a notch.  His demeanour was far more presidential.

Trump arguably scored points by repeatedly asking why Biden failed to accomplish any of the numerous things he now says so badly need to be done in the almost five decades he spent in Washington, DC and described him as an “all talk, no action” consummate politician. 

The New York billionaire painted himself, on the other hand, as an anti-politician who only sought high office on account of what he saw as the failings of the “beltway insider” political class.

Additionally, Trump did well to highlight Biden’s previous statements condemning fracking – a controversial means of drilling for oil and gas that may poison groundwater and cause pollution – during the Democratic primary. 

This process has created thousands of jobs in the electorally crucial state of Pennsylvania and is quite popular there as a result. And while it may endear him to environmentalists, Biden’s forthright declaration that it is imperative for the country to move beyond oil and other fossil fuels will not help him in some of the places that will tell the tale on 3 November.

Tired messaging

That said, Trump’s assertions that his administration has handled the coronavirus well fell flat and defy reality.

His mantra that the “best economy ever” has begun to roar back and will grow exponentially if he is re-elected will have been heard incredulously by millions of Americans devastated by financial ruin in the wake of the public health crisis. 

The extraordinary political punch of his 2016 slogans – America First and Make America Great Again – was sorely missed. In truth, present circumstances render them inapposite.

At certain junctures, Joe Biden looked to be in pain as he endeavoured to recite statistics or offer rebuttals to the points made by his opponent.  On a couple of occasions, he fumbled on or struggled for words when trying to hit back with persuasive ripostes that could have been replayed in the coming days. Smooth delivery when under fire is not his strong suit.

Stylistically, Biden was at his best when he looked the television audience straight on.  Substantively, he was effective in drawing clear blue water between himself and fellow Democrats to his left who he vanquished to capture the party’s nomination, especially on healthcare. 

Trump continues to imply that his actual rivals are Bernie Sanders and AOC, but the centrist from Delaware reminded the viewers that “he’s running against Joe Biden.”

Biden’s moral authority

Biden also contrasted himself with Trump, who constantly referred to “Democrat-run states and cities” by noting that “I’m going to be President for all Americans.”  And there was what has turned into his signature line: that this campaign is ultimately down to the character of the nation and is a referendum on fundamental values, such as decency, respect and honour. 

This is a powerful and clever means of highlighting the favourable reputation and moral standing of Joe Biden as compared to Donald Trump.  It works.

Finally, Biden’s sarcastically calling Trump “Abraham Lincoln” was an appropriate retort to the president’s outlandish, hubristic comment that he has done more for African Americans than any of his predecessors except for the revered historical figure responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation calling for the slaves to be freed.

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In sum, Joe Biden did not make any mistakes last night. It can be cogently contended that Donald Trump took the debate on points. He didn’t get the crushing victory he required, however. 

As such, Biden was the winner. Barring a major unforeseen development – in this vein, remember that tens of millions of votes have already been cast – or the polls being massively off the mark – possible, albeit it remotely – the incumbent’s path to a second term is dead uphill. And there is precious little time left.          

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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