A Return to the Partisan Norm: The Third Presidential Debate of 2020
A shiny red tie and a bright blue tie made their way onto the stage Thursday evening, each wrapped around the neck of one of our two candidates in the 2020 Presidential Election. As moderator Kristen Welker announced their names, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage. Each candidate dawning the color traditionally representing their party, red and blue, and hoping to make one more passionate plea to gain the vote of the American people. Although both men brought a different kind of debate to the screen than we saw only weeks ago, this debate was still so similar to the same partisan rhetoric we have watched seep into our country’s politics for decades.
Unlike our first debate, this one largely revolved around the issues. Certainly, the way Donald Trump talks about the issues involves a great deal of showmanship, deflection, exaggeration, and outright lies, but after watching what a completely unhinged Trump is like on the debate stage last time, we’re still going to count this one as a win, at least so much as there was an actual, two way dialogue. Make no mistake, though it was marginally better than the last debate, this debate still clung to some of American politicians’ favorite tactics.
Like any good Republican, the red-tied gentleman still painted himself as an outsider fighting capital corruption. It’s oddly reminiscent of a certain red-tied gentleman from Texas who twenty years ago spoke about how working in politics at a state level set him apart from his DC counterpart- How this made him an outsider and how the American people needed and wanted an outsider. Just as George W. Bush did some 20 years ago, Donald J Trump leaned into the cost of his opponents social programs, like Biden’s plans for Healthcare and Climate Change. He relied, again just as Bush did, on his charisma and ability to talk about slender truths vs in depth analysis. It is fair, I believe, to say that it’s impossible for half truths to tell the whole story.
One of the more robust moments and clearest examples of this during the debate came when Biden and Trump squared off regarding the current administration’s separation policy at the US Mexico Border. Trump, in response to a question about reuniting children who his administration’s policies separated from their parents, spoke about how strong he feels our border is now, before quickly deflecting blame and directing the conversation to “who built the cages.” He insisted that the 500+ children whose parents can not be identified were brought to the country by coyotes, cartels, and gangs.
The slender truth here is that Obama’s administration “built the cages.” Biden quickly responded by correcting the president.
“These five hundred plus kids came with parents. They [The Trump Administration] separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with. Real tough. We’re really strong… Coyote’s didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Trump insisted on replying, “Kristen they did it. We changed the policy. They built the cages. Who built the cages, Joe? Who built the cages?” This reply is designed to lean even harder into the slender truth. Yes, in fact, the Obama administration did build some detention areas for children who, in very rare cases, such as when their parents were wanted for crimes, were held temporarily for their own safety. There’s a difference between that and indefinitely holding children while making no attempt to maintain record of their parents. The difference being, one is criminally negligent. It does not compare to Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, which is what separated thousands of parents from their children at the border. The notion that the Obama administration “built the cages” is a silly one, as Biden goes on to discuss. “Let’s talk about what we’re talking about,” he says, which is just a great way to quickly address Trump’s focusing on a slender truth rather than an entire issue.
“Parents- Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated… Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. And it’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
Trump goes on to continue asking, “who built the cages,” before the moderator moves the conversation back into a broader scope of immigration. Biden, of course, reminds the American people here how his plan will create a clear pathway to citizenship and protect dreamers within the first 100 days of his presidency. Trump’s response is to shout, “he built cages.” When we talk about slender truths diverting American attention from the full issue, this was a textbook example.
Yes, President Trump had a different approach tonight than the last time around. He wasn’t the dog barking as it chases the car down the street, at least not for the entire hour and a half. He was the puppy, waiting by its bowl, hoping for its next meal. Sure, the microphones were muted, and certainly there were times, especially early on in the evening, where that visibly prevented Trump from interjecting. That was clearly not the main reason Trump practiced discipline tonight. I know many of you may think the man is incapable of strategy, but I will remind you, as I so often do, Trump is two things. He’s a conman, and he’s an actor. Any actor worth their weight in salt can at least take a direction, which clearly Trump did tonight. He listened to his coaches. He kept quiet. Trump picked his battles, hoping to catch that bone — Hoping that Biden would slip up, probably even expecting him to do so. It’s as if they have been telling the Biden is senile lie for so long, so frequently, and with such enthusiasm, that even they believed it. Unfortunately for Trump, it didn’t happen. In fact, tonight Biden demonstrated just how sharp he is.
The uninterrupted Biden is an entirely different man. He’s not someone who’s stammering over every other word, who’s flipping around every other number he says, or who’s leaning on meaningless crutch phrases while fighting back a speech impediment. He’s sharp. He’s tactful. He’s compassionate, direct, and most importantly, he can lay out his policy platform in a meaningful way. Somehow, there are still people out there who don’t know that Biden has released a plan to end The War on Drugs and literally upheave, unhinge, and rewrite how America has approached addiction for decades. There are still people who don’t know that Biden has comprehensive plan for Healthcare that includes protecting women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the right of every American to have an affordable option. There are still people who don’t know Biden is proposing forgiving student loan debt, creating tuition free universities, and universal pre-school access. If there’s one positive thing that came from tonight's debate, it’s that now, hopefully, people know what Biden is about.
The last debate was a nightmare scenario. I don’t know if you watched the first debate, but the idea of determining the presidential candidate from that debate is the equivalent of saying we’d determine it from a cock fight. It was, without exaggeration, a national disgrace. If you didn’t watch it, and you would like a recap, and a few harsh words directed at both candidates as we try to pull any meaning out of what was no doubt a drunken night full of millions of Americans shouting at their screens, check out our in depth article on the evening here. If you want to dig in really deep on tonight’s debate, we’ll be putting out a much more in depth response in the coming days, and we hope you check it out too. Yes, tonight’s debate was different than the last, but is that even enough at this point?
While I think the country is thankful for at least some level of civility demonstrated by both candidates during this debate, I would caution them. Don’t get complacent. Don’t let the same rhetoric we’ve listened to for twenty years be “good enough.” Even if it was better than the shouting match we watched last time, the fact of the matter is it’s not. It’s not good enough. Americans deserve better. One thing is clear, whoever wins the 2020 election, Americans need to continue applying pressure to politicians. We need to hold them accountable and push them to take up the causes we care about in a way we believe will actually be impactful. As for Trump — A word of advice: if your handlers are telling you the best way to win a debate is to shut up, you probably should start considering if there’s ever been any value at all to what you’ve been saying.