“This Election Is Over”: Was the Final Presidential Debate the Nail in Trump’s Coffin?

Thank God for muted mics—or at least for the threat of them. Though it’s unclear how much the tactic was actually employed, the potential for an embarrassing cutoff prompted the most debate-like presidential debate of the 2020 cycle. Granted, that’s not saying much; Donald Trump still implied that migrant children separated from their families at the border land in the lap of luxury, and repeated many of the same debunked claims he’s been spouting for the past four years. On balance, Joe Biden’s performance didn’t blow anyone away, but it was just what he needed. Here’s what the Hive team took away from Thursday night.

Gabriel Sherman: Trump started the night speaking at a moderate decibel level. He answered in complete sentences. He didn’t interrupt. He even complimented moderator Kristen Welker! His (almost) civil delivery departed sharply from his widely panned performance at the opening debate. With 12 days until Election Day, he was finally trying to appeal to people who don’t watch Sean Hannity. 

But 30 minutes in, Trump turned the conversation to Hunter Biden’s “horrible emails” and promptly descended into the right-wing fever swamps. He couldn’t even follow his own thread. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he said at one point. In split screen you could see Biden’s eyes bulge when Trump unspooled inchoate conspiracies about various foreign payoffs, as if he was thinking, Is this guy still roided up? Trump torched whatever positive impressions he might have made at the outset. 

Biden did what he had to do. He had some strong lines. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked,” he said about Trump’s failed coronavirus response. It’s hard to see this debate mattering. But Biden’s peroration about the horror of Trump’s child-separation policy made it clear just how much the election does. “Those kids are alone.… It’s criminal,” Biden said.

Emily Jane Fox: Anyone with a Twitter account and a pulse knew Hunter Biden would come up during this debate, and it forced me to think about presidential children and their role in recent elections. Of course I’ve thought about, written about, talked about this current first family almost every day since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. Exactly this week four years ago, I was reporting a story about Ivanka Trump’s plan to revive her eponymous lifestyle brand after her father would inevitably lose against Hillary Clinton. And there was, in fact, a plan, though both the plan and story were scrapped once Trump won. Instead Ivanka has spent the last four years advancing her brand as princess of America while steamrolling laws and norms in a handful of ways. Last week alone she violated the Hatch Act by promoting Trump’s campaign on Twitter while also using the account as a White House employee. The very fact that she and her husband, Jared Kushner, work in the White House at all violates an anti-nepotism law that was in place for 50 years until the DOJ decided it no longer applied. And as White House employees, they continued to use private email addresses to conduct official business, despite the dripping irony and protocols. That’s saying nothing of the fact that neither of them could get their high-level security clearance without Ivanka’s father intervening. There’s also the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project, which the Trump children planned for and worked on well into the 2016 presidential campaign, and the dirt Don Jr. tried to dig up on Hillary Clinton, with the help of Russian operatives, from his office in Trump Tower.

It would have been easy for both candidates to go down the unethical-child road on Thursday night. Yet none of this came up in the debate, despite Biden advisers urging him to swipe back when Trump dragged Hunter into the conversation. Perhaps Biden realized the American people didn’t need all of this pointed out, because the Trump family did it in plain sight. Perhaps he thought it better to ignore the subject. Or perhaps, as he said onstage, the Americans won’t care about the Biden children or the Trump children when they head to the ballot box. They’ll vote for their own children—whether they will be able to safely attend school, keep their health care, not be profiled by the police, have access to a vaccine or a planet that can sustain human life.

I understand why the president would make the closing argument of his campaign about something so irrelevant to the average American’s life. One, because he’s never once tried to understand what an average American life looks like. And two, because the things that matter to most people—the pandemic, the economy, health care—all break badly for him. To waste these last precious moments on inane diversions serves him, so expect much more of that in the days to come.

Chris Smith:: Biden was ready for the moment. He wasn’t sure exactly how Trump might phrase the callousness about the hundreds of thousands of American coronavirus deaths this time. But Trump has been doing it, repeatedly, for months—“I don’t take any responsibility”; “It is what it is.” Getting sick from the virus himself hadn’t humbled Trump in the slightest. Just the opposite: Now that he’s supposedly “immune,” Trump seems, remarkably, to have even less empathy for all the suckers and losers who can’t get extraordinary, taxpayer-funded medical care. So less than 15 minutes into the second and final 2020 presidential debate, when asked about his plans to rescue the country as a second pandemic wave grows, Trump started with his usual hype about a phantom vaccine that’s “going to be announced within weeks” and how “we’re opening up our country.” And then he finished with: “We’re learning to live with it. We have no choice.”

— to www.vanityfair.com

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