Mute buttons, Lincoln and a watch: 6 takeaways from the Trump-Biden debate

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on October 22, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. (Photos by Brendan Smialowski and JIM WATSON / AFP)

Trailing in opinion polls with the November 3 election just 12 days away, US President Donald Trump was under pressure during Thursday’s final debate to revive his flagging campaign against Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Here are six takeaways from the debate.

A more civilised evening

After the first Trump-Biden debate in September devolved into a chaotic shouting match, moderators said they would mute each candidate’s microphone to allow the other to speak without interruption for two minutes at the outset of each 15-minute debate segment.

The mute button did not much come into play, and even during the remaining free debate segments, the candidates maintained a more civil demeanor than at their last meeting.

Trump seemed to be on his best behavior early in the evening — even to moderator Kristen Welker, a member of the White House press corps he frequently denigrates. “So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this,” he said.

But as the debate wore on, Trump was reverting to form — talking over Welker and mocking Biden while he spoke.

Better than Abraham Lincoln?

Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups in the first debate amounted to perhaps his biggest unforced error.

He avoided that pitfall on Thursday during an exchange over race relations, during which he touted his criminal justice reform law, which effectively rolled back some aspects of the tough-on-crime legislation sponsored by Biden in the 1990s that resulted in long prison sentences for millions of Black people.

But Trump’s remarks also featured his signature hyperbole. “With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception […] nobody’s done what I’ve done” for Black Americans, he said.

He also said he decided to run for president because he did not like the performance of the country’s first Black president. “I ran because of Barack Obama. He did a poor job. If I thought he did a good job, I never would have run.”

Biden responded with mockery: “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”

Talking to the camera

Biden tried several times to break away from the melee and address voters directly.

After a long exchange about the two candidates’ personal finances, Biden turned to the camera and said: “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family. And your family’s hurting badly,” he said.

During a discussion on healthcare, he said: “How many of you are home rolling around in bed at night wondering what in God’s name are you going to do if you get sick?”

Election hacking, the IRS and tax returns

Trump sought to portray Biden as being corruptly involved with his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine and China, but he struggled to shape accusations that have circulated in conservative media into a coherent case.

No evidence has emerged to link Biden to any improper behavior, and the only result has been Trump’s impeachment last year by the House of Representatives for pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden.

Biden flatly denied any impropriety on his part, and contrasted his willingness to release his tax returns with Trump’s refusal to do so. “What are you hiding?” he asked. “Release your tax returns, or stop talking about corruption.”

Trump was left to air old grievances about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and others who he thought were treating him unfairly. “I get treated very badly by the IRS, very unfairly,” he said.

What time is it?

Biden briefly glanced at his wristwatch late in the debate, after Welker referenced the small amount of time remaining. In the real world that might not be seen as an unusual act, but it evoked comparisons among political junkies with Republican President George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.

That was seen as a major faux pas at the time.

The pandemic

Shortly after the last debate, Trump contracted Covid-19 and spent three days in a hospital. The pandemic, which has killed more than 222,000 people in the United States, remains the top issue for voters and Biden has repeatedly accused Trump of mismanaging the crisis.

“I caught it, I learned a lot. Great doctors, great hospitals,” Trump said.

Trump appeared to make news by promising that a vaccine for the virus would be ready “within weeks,” before backpedaling. “It’s not a guarantee,” he clarified.

He promised that the country was “rounding the corner,” even as several US states reported record one-day increases.

Biden waved his black face mask as a prop, an implicit rebuke of a president who has famously been reluctant to wear one. “If we just wore masks, we could save 100,000 lives,” he said.

Members of the Trump family did not wear masks at the last debate. For this one, they did.