In the second and final one-on-one presidential debate of the 2020 race, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden both turned in stronger performances than they had in their first, thanks in part to the impressive moderation of NBC News reporter Kristen Welker. Trump, perhaps because of new rules and advice he'd received, was much less inclined to interrupt Biden and marginally less combative. Biden, perhaps because he wasn't interrupted constantly, was able to get to many of his key talking point and directly connect with voters on matters that are important to them.
Though Trump occasionally had a strong or persuasive moment, Biden was undoubtedly the clear victor of the debate. He cleaned the president's clock.
That claim is not a mere reflection of personal taste, but a judgment about how each candidate talked about issues that matter to people. Over and over, Biden made substantive points about public policy, taking the overwhelmingly popular side in these disputes. Trump would often simply flail in response or back himself into a corner with an unpopular stance.
For instance, on the minimum wage, Trump clearly opposed raising it as Biden has proposed, saying "that's not helping." He said it should be a "state option."
This is a problem for Trump. Pew Research has found that 67 percent of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, including 43 percent of Republicans. His stance also undercuts the appeal he had for many GOP voter in 2016, based around his image as an unorthodox Republican who actually cared about working men and women.
Trump also said he wanted the Supreme Court to get rid of Obamacare, a view opposed by 58 percent of Americans, including 66 percent of independents, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Trump says he wants to replace Obamacare with a new law, but he hasn't presented one in four years. And according to Gallup, voters trust Biden more on health care by a 13-point margin.
On a related issue, the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was likewise walking on thin ice. His approval rating on handling of the crisis is under water, with around 40 percent of Americans approving of his response and around 58 percent disapproving. But Trump did little to change anyone's mind on the matter and continued to insist that it's not that big a deal. At one point he, said Americans are "learning to live with it," an opening Biden dove into with a brutal rejoinder:
And when Biden pushed Trump on not taking responsibility for his own performance on the pandemic, Trump gave a response that would have seemed too absurd for parody:
And Biden pointed out that Trump has yet to get another bill passed for COVID relief, another overwhelmingly popular idea. When Trump blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the delay, Biden rightly pointed out that the House had already passed the massive HEROES Act, and Senate Republicans oppose it. Trump trotted out his usual attack on HEROES, calling it a bailout for blue states. But Biden used this opportunity to call for uniting the country rather than dividing, a point that is likely to be more popular than Trump blaming Democrats for wanting too much stimulus money.
Biden also expertly used a discussion of immigration to call out the Trump administration's horrendous immigration policies, which have been highlighted in recent days with reports that more than 500 children who were separated from their parents by the president's agencies have yet to be reunited years later. Biden called the policy "criminal" and spoke passionately about the abuse the children suffered. Here, too, Biden was on strong ground — 66 percent of people opposed Trump's family separation policy, according to one poll. Biden also defended more humane practices of releasing undocumented migrants while they await hearings.
And when Trump hit back at Biden, his answers were inconsistent and hazy. He repeatedly asked Biden who built the cages that Trump infamously put children in, correctly implying that they were constructed under the Obama administration. But though this is a popular right-wing gotcha line, it's hard to see it being persuasive with voters. People who are unsettled by the inhumane treatment of migrants are unlikely to be convinced by this claim that Biden would be more harsh on immigrants. And it's hard to understand the point Trump was trying to make with it, given that his other argument was that Biden and Obama were too lenient with immigrants. Without a clear point to make, Trump just comes off as argumentative and a bully.
The exchange also led Trump into one of the most despicable lines of the night, when he attacked the immigrants who show up for trial dates as having low IQs:
Later, Biden excelled when he talked about investing and green energy to combat climate change. He focused on the fact that these investments can support new jobs and that both labor groups and environmental organizations support his plan. Trump tried to fearmonger about the threat reducing reliance on fossil fuels poses to American industry, but the fact is that most Americans are concerned about climate change and want politicians to take strong action to counter it. Talking about the transition away from fossil fuels is a positive, enthusiastic way as Biden did makes for a powerful message on this point.
Trump's strongest moments came when he was hitting Biden on his support for the 1990s crimes bill, which many now argue was far too punitive. And the president also had a relatively effective line in response to any of Biden's proposals, arguing that Biden never got them done in his decades in government. But he probably overused this attack line and had no substantive response to Biden's point that he has gotten things done but wants to do more, and that he has previously been stymied by GOP opposition.
One part of the debate without a clear "winner" came when the candidates delved into dueling accusations of corruption. Trump fanned the flames of unclear allegations about Biden's son, Hunter, that have taken off in right-wing circles in recent days. Biden hit back by pointing to the New York Times' reporting on Trump's taxes, particularly the fact that it was recently revealed he had a secret Chinese bank account. Arguably, Biden got the better of this dispute, as he focused on the fact that Trump hasn't released his taxes — which Americans want to see — while Trump went off listing a series of fringe allegations that few people outside of the Fox News universe will understand. But even if you argue that this segment of the debate was a "draw" with both candidates coming out looking sullied, that's probably still good for Biden, who is leading in the polls.
After this dispute, Biden pivoted away from the attacks and spoke directly to the American people.
"There's a reason why he's bringing up all this malarkey," Biden said. "It's not about his family and my family. It's about your family. And your family is hurting badly. If you're a middle-class family, you're getting hurt badly right now."
He added: "We should be talking about your families, but that's the last thing he wants to talk about."
It was an effective moment. Trump seemed to realize this, too, because he tried to undercut it with a harsh reply. He dismissed Biden's plea as pure pandering, saying that he sounded like a "politician."
Perhaps that reply was a good one for some viewers. But there's a reason to think it wasn't. Throughout the rest of the debate, Biden was consistently talking about popular policies and ideas that will make families' lives better. Trump was rambling and often dismissing these ideas, while providing few alternatives. So if they were listening to the rest of the debate, many voters will probably think Biden was sincere.