Why Joe Biden won the final debate

Nothing happened Thursday night that would put his solid lead at risk

Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

In Nashville on Thursday night Donald Trump and Joe Biden fought to a draw on the debate stage — which means that Biden won, and won big. That's because he holds a national polling lead of nearly ten points, he's been leading solidly on every day of the campaign from the beginning, the election is less than two weeks away, and the president did nothing in their final confrontation that's likely to change the shape of the race.

Not that he didn't try. Trump came out swinging and was his usual rude, mendacious, and petulant self. But he wasn't quite the rampaging, appallingly boorish jerk he chose to be at the first debate three weeks ago in Cleveland. He frequently talked over moderator Kristen Welker and insisted on speaking longer than his allotted time, but he dialed back the aggressiveness just enough to keep from coming off as a thug and a bully. For that reason, I doubt his numbers will sink in the way they did right after the candidates sparred in late September.

Biden was better this time, too. Without Trump constantly talking over him and spewing a nonstop torrent of lies, he was able to formulate cogent responses to questions and the barrage of attacks from his opponent. He also managed to go on the offense with the president over the pandemic, health care, foreign policy, climate change, and other subjects. Biden's best moment came midway through when Trump attempted, as he did in the first debate, to portray the former vice president as more left-wing than he is. This prompted Biden to respond sharply, referring to his 20-odd opponents during the Democratic primaries, many of whom were to his left, "[Trump is] a very confused guy... he thinks he's running against someone else. He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them."

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The strangest moments of the evening came when Trump tried repeatedly to invoke the series of murky stories about the business dealings of the Democrat's son, Hunter Biden, that have appeared in The New York Post and in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal over the past week or so. These stories have all the hallmarks of a Roger Stone-inspired dirty-tricks sliming operation. Their sourcing is murky and they insinuate wrongdoing on Joe Biden's part that never quite gets substantiated. But that didn't keep Trump from referring conspiratorially to elements of the stories involving Ukraine, China, money, payments, and percentages in a way that surely dumbfounded nearly every person watching the debate.

Biden was smart to let Trump drone on about all of this at length and then respond with a blanket assertion that he had done nothing wrong and had taken no payments from any foreign government. Unless Trump and his water-carriers in the right-wing media can come up with something more than they have so far, this story will end up being just another failed gimmick in a campaign that has tried a series of them over the past several months.

Rivaling the Hunter Biden distraction for sheer outlandishness was Trump's attempt to hit Biden from the left on not one but two issues. On several past occasions the president has made a point of raising Biden's support for the 1994 crime bill and comments at the time about predatory criminals — as if Trump himself hasn't spent the past four years flattering cops, chanting a mantra of "law and order," and attempting to sow fear among suburbanites about the dangers of urban crime.

But in Nashville, Trump went further, trying to deflect criticism about the severe cruelties of his administration's family-separation policy by repeatedly asking Biden, "Who built the cages?" Apparently Trump meant to imply that building holding pens for immigrants along the southern border is morally worse than using them to hold children who have been forcibly taken from their parents. In case anyone doubted that it was an exercise in gaslighting, the president clarified by bragging about how those kids have been "so well taken care of."

Biden began to flag in the final third of the 90-minute debate. Over and over again, Trump treated him as if he'd been president for eight years and done nothing. "You're all talk and no action" was the repeated message. Biden could have responded, "I wasn't in charge then, but you're the president right now, and the country's in serious trouble because you're in way over your head." Instead, Biden seemed a little stuck, not wanting to distance himself too much from the record of the Obama administration — or especially from Obama himself, who remains quite popular in the Democratic Party, with Black voters, and in the country more generally. So he sort of wanly dismissed the charge with hand gestures and facial expressions.

The Democrat rebounded in the debate's final question. Asked what each of them would say if they won the election to those who didn't vote for them, Trump didn't answer and instead veered off into a mix of bragging about the past four years and promises about the next four. But Biden returned to top form, speaking (as he had earlier in the evening) about how he wouldn't be the president of blue states or red states but of the whole United States. He'd strive for unity and work to bring the country together.

That's a solid but not especially inspiring closing argument. It's certainly better than "Let's have more four more years of The Trump Show!" And that means it's more than good enough to power Joe Biden through the final 12 days of a campaign he was winning before Thursday night and is exceedingly likely to keep right on winning.

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