Biden and Trump’s Character and Record Prominent in the Final Debate

In the end, Trump remained Trump, the self-proclaimed “Lincoln,” who could bring people together through prosperity, and Biden remained Biden, who could bring people together through a generous spirit, but had few specifics to articulate.
October 23, 2020
U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

To America’s great relief, the final presidential debate was civil, thanks to the new format of the Commission on Presidential Debates, each man having a clock to watch, a reasonable opportunity to respond, and receiving the message that the first debate was an international embarrassment. Although there were no personal greetings or congenial elbow bumps, there was none of the first debate’s absolutely ugly hostility.

Each came prepared for the other’s weaknesses. And surprisingly, perhaps because the president’s weaknesses are so thoroughly known, it seemed as if the vice president was playing defense. The president, of course, best plays offense.

Although the primary debate categories included the coronavirus, national security, health care, minimum wage, immigration, race, and climate change, the debate often focused on the accomplishments and failures of the Trump versus Obama administrations. Trump repeatedly turned to attack the vice president’s character by referencing recent Biden family financial allegations. And when the president was attacked on policy, he questioned why the Obama administration hadn’t addressed whatever the policy issue was.

the debate often focused on the accomplishments and failures of the Trump versus Obama administrations.

The candidates often returned to character. Biden’s charges against Trump were easy and well known, from lying to the country in January about the coronavirus’s seriousness to concealing his tax records. But Trump had a counterattack, given the recent news involving the financial dealings of Hunter Biden in Ukraine and China, and the purported links to the former vice president. It took some time for Biden to make a forceful denial, finally asserting that the allegations were “garbage” and a “Russian plan” and that “nobody believes it except him.” Trump responded, “You mean, the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax? … You have to be kidding here.” Looking at the camera, Biden concluded, “You know his character, you know my character…the character of the country is on the ballot.”

When moderator Kristin Welker turned to the topic of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese efforts to interfere in our election, it didn’t stay long in focus. Biden said any state that interferes “will pay a price,” and then turned the attack on Trump, claiming that Trump never discussed election interference with Putin and that the Russians had put a bounty on American soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump turned the table, arguing that Russia had wanted him to lose, that he had extracted additional funds from NATO allies, and that he had sold tanks to Ukraine while Obama had done nothing to defend it. Trump then reiterated that Biden’s family took from Ukraine and got rich off of foreign money. But in perhaps the best one-liner of the evening, Biden went back to character, saying, “It’s not about his family and my family.” Biden then looked straight at the camera: “it’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly.”

The topic of race in America followed the same plotlines. Biden began by saying that although we’ve gotten better, there is “institutional racism” in America, and turned to drug sentencing as an example. Trump responded by noting that the Obama administration had “put tens of thousands of mostly Black young men in prison,” and Ms. Welker pointed out that Biden supported crime bills that had jailed people for having small amounts of drugs. Biden apologized — “It was a mistake.” But Trump demanded, “why didn’t you [deal with this problem] four years ago?” Trump said that he had “great relationships with all people,” listed what he said were accomplishments of his administration (including prison reform and long-term funding for Black colleges), and concluded that “no one has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump with the possible exception of Lincoln.” Biden retorted, “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents in modern history.”

The president similarly turned the table on immigration. Trump argued that under the Obama administration there were record deportations, and the administration built the “cages” for children separated from their parents. On the defensive, Biden apologized, saying it “took too long” to get it right, noted that five hundred children were still not reunited with their parents, and argued that detained families should be released because they always showed up for their hearing dates. Trump responded (after clearly arguing with himself as to whether he should say it) that the only persons who showed up for their hearing dates were those with “the lowest IQ.”

Foreign policy, however, mostly addressed whom the Russians favored and how the Biden family prospered. But when the spat turned to North Korea, it again devolved into an Obama-versus-Trump-administration quarrel. Biden said that Obama would only have met with Kim Jong-un if North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump said that Obama had told him that North Korea was the world’s biggest problem, and that Obama/Biden had left him a “mess.” But under Trump, we now have a “good relationship” with North Korea.

The healthcare discussion followed a similar pattern. Trump suggested that Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, favored socializing medicine and that she was “more liberal than Bernie Sanders.” (In a June 2019 debate, Harris indicated that she would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, but she later walked back the claim.) Biden said healthcare wasn’t a socialist idea—it was a “right.” Biden added that he didn’t want to eliminate private insurance, which was why he fought “with 20 candidates” for the Democratic nomination. Again Trump asked, why didn’t Biden accomplish his plan when he was vice president?

On the coronavirus, Biden went on the attack. He asserted that the president has no plan, dithered in his early response, encouraged the lack of masks, and falsely claimed there was no reason to worry. With no prospect of a vaccine until the middle of next year, Biden noted that 200,000 more deaths are expected. “I will make sure we have a plan,” Biden said, and emphasized relying on scientists. When the president said, “We’re learning to live with it,” Biden had the quick response, “Learning to live with it? … We’re dying with it.”

When Trump argued that the closed economy was harmful economically and psychologically, that New York had become a ghost town, that closed states were also experiencing high mortality, and that schools should be reopened because young people are safer, Biden responded that opening the economy required fast testing, tracing, safe commercial environments, and new ventilation systems in schools. All of this, Biden asserted, required funding (some of which had been approved but not used), and that the president was opposing new money. The reference to government funding was left unexplained.

The candidates also sparred on the minimum wage. Trump argued it should be a state option because different states had different needs. Biden said that first responders needed $15 an hour, and there was “no evidence” that raising the minimum wage would put any small company out of business. Trump warned that moving our economy toward alternative sources of energy would eliminate jobs, but Biden retorted that we have a “moral obligation” to deal with climate change and that climate-change industries would create millions of new jobs.

At the end, Ms. Welker asked what each candidate would say in their inaugural address. Both said they would bring the country together, but with different emphases. Trump said he would make the country as successful as it was before the coronavirus, and that creating more jobs for everyone will bring Americans together. Biden combined optimism with an attack, saying “I represent all of you,” and that he will trust “science over fiction,” deal with “systemic racism,” create “hope over fear,” and give everyone an “even chance,” because “you haven’t been getting it the last four years.”

In the end, Trump remained Trump, the self-proclaimed “Lincoln,” who could bring people together through prosperity, and Biden remained Biden, who could bring people together through a generous spirit, but had few specifics to articulate.

Gregory Smith is an appellate lawyer at Lowenstein & Weatherwax LLP.

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