This Was a Pretty Good Debate. Who Cares?

There was a rough consensus in the political class before Thursday night’s presidential debate about what both candidates and the moderator needed to do to avoid a disaster. Defying precedent, both candidates and the moderator did those things.

The result: No disaster. No national embarrassment with a debate that hurtled off the rails. And likely no big alterations in a race that has stayed basically stable even through 2020’s twin traumas of pandemic and racial unrest and will finally end just eleven days from now.

Instead, the final presidential debate seemed to carry a vague whiff of normal. Was that for real? Or have expectations corroded so comprehensively that anything that doesn’t reek as acridly abnormal now seems inoffensive, or even the slightest bit pleasant?

President Donald Trump, according to the advance line, needed above all not to present as a loudmouth boor as he did at the first debate on Sept. 29, when he tried to avoid legitimate questions with bullying interruptions and bluster. He wouldn’t get an A in presidential comportment from any rigorous grader, but he did okay by the standards of this remedial classroom. A star on the forehead for him.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the thinking went, needed mostly to avoid getting yanked into some trap relating to untenable policy positions or his son’s overseas business dealings, and to do nothing that could lend credence to Trump’s frequent taunts that he is too enfeebled and infirm to be president. His answers were often crisp, sometimes a little soggy, but never an oh-no-where’s-he-going-with-this excursion along the Pacific Coast Highway. A star on the forehead for him.

Moderator Kristen Welker needed to do what two previous moderators at the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate could not accomplish -- to avoid being run off the road by interruptions and crosstalk and disregard for the debate rules, and to ensure that the audience had at least a shot at a coherent discussion of issues shadowing the country’s and world’s future. She achieved that with appealing poise. Two stars for her.

But now that the stars have been dispensed, an uncomfortable question about a debate ritual that is usually described in momentous terms: Who cares?

The custom is to review debates—and especially the “viral moments” they sometimes produce—on stylistic grounds, on the theory that in the modern presidency style and substance are intricately intertwined, and a high-profile encounter between rivals with tens of millions of people watching provides a good window into leadership character. In normal times that theory probably has a decent measure of truth.

But how many viewers Thursday night, or catching up on the proceeding Friday morning, could be so credulous that they somehow found their 2020 choice illuminated in a vivid new way?

Never before has the central question in a presidential race been framed in such a towering way: Do you approve of the incumbent’s disruptive approach to the presidency, and the world, or do you regard him as a menace to important institutions, customs, and values?

Never before has the challenger been on the national stage for 48 years. What Biden is, and what he isn’t, was well-established. At one point, as the president tried to tie him to Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party’s left flank, Biden said of Trump: “He’s very confused. He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”

And who is that? At the auditorium at Belmont University in Nashville, that was a fairly polished version of the same guy who limped through the early primaries before suddenly taking command last March in South Carolina: An establishment politician whose instincts are centrist but who is adaptable enough to be a credible representative for a party with ascendant and impatient progressive voices. Against Trump Thursday night, no one was going to mistake Biden for Winston Churchill. But nor did he come off like Grampa Simpson.

With Trump, the evening raised—hardly for the first time—an intriguing possibility: What if he could sustain the kind of discipline and modulated performance that he offered for several stretches Thursday night, and had made this a regular feature of his presidency?

It seems unlikely that he would have chased away so many parts of the traditional Republican coalition, such as college-educated suburbanites, and be so acutely dependent on stimulating higher turnout among less-educated, occasional voters who share his contempt for conventional politics.

Trump’s regular refrain Thursday night was that he is not a typical politician, but that Biden is, and he kept asking if the former vice president thinks he has so many good ideas on health care or immigration or North Korea, why was he not able to get them done during the Obama years or during his decades in the Senate before that. He delivered the lines with a fluency and consistent focus that was missing from his scattershot first debate, and much of his rhetoric during the closing weeks of a campaign in which he is running behind.

No need to get too carried away on this flight of fancy. Trump is who he is. While he hurled fewer personal insults at Biden, he did hammer away at the business ventures of his son and brother, who he said have tried to profit from their proximity to power. Trump didn’t interrupt, and even complimented Welker (after days accusing her publicly of hopeless bias), but when he wasn’t speaking and the camera was on him his face seemed to suggest his intense impatience at having to contain himself.

Probably the most relevant section of the debate was the beginning, as Biden and Trump did in a reasonably intelligible way offer what are plainly genuine differences in philosophy about how to manage the competing values of mitigating risk and returning to regular routines during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I say we're learning to live with it,” Trump said. “We have no choice. We can't lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does… We can't close up our nation. We have to open our schools and we can't close up our nation or you're not going to have a nation.”

“He says that we're learning to live with it,” Biden retorted. “People are learning to die with it.” He added, “What I would say is I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country.”

One should not expect too many laughs at a presidential debate in a year marked by a deadly virus and racial protests, but there was one when Biden threw an elbow at Trump by saying, “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history.”

He was making a sarcastic reference to Trump’s earlier claim that he had done more to help African-Americans than any president “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln—possible exception.”

But Trump seemingly took Biden’s gibe as an opportunity to suggest the former vice president had become confused. “You made a reference to Abraham Lincoln,” he scoffed. “Where did that come in.”

As it happened, the Lincoln-Douglas debates will not need to squeeze in on history’s shelf to make way for fresh leather binders to preserve the fateful Trump-Biden encounters.

But, if we are grading on a curve, this debate was not bad at all by 2020 standards.

Hunter Biden wins the debate

In the end, the Nashville debate was more about Tony Fauci than Tony Bobulinski.

Trailing by nearly 10 points in the polls, and facing the potential for the greatest repudiation of an incumbent president since Jimmy Carter in 1980 — a 400-plus electoral vote victory is possible for Joe Biden — Donald Trump arrived at the final debate of the 2020 campaign seized by an issue that was never really discussed.

One of the hallmarks of the Trump era has been his penchant for pushing fringe characters peddling dubious stories into the center ring of our political circus. In the past he has been an effective ringmaster. Whether it’s retweeting conspiracy theorists (that guy who recently alleged Osama bin Laden was still alive), elevating people who believe drinking water is tainted with Prozac that is causing shrimp to commit suicide (Alex Jones), or putting fringe GOP operatives banished from presidential politics on the payroll (Roger Stone), Trump has often delighted — and benefited politically — from turning the sideshow into the main show.

Trump worked overtime to do that again on Thursday, but it did not go particularly well, before or during the debate. His campaign organized a press conference earlier Thursday at which Bobulinski, Hunter Biden’s former business partner in a failed Chinese investment venture, stood awkwardly in a tight-fitting suit and tie and alleged that Joe Biden knew details about the enterprise.

Bobulinski took a page from Trump and his associates: At a press conference, the president once displayed piles of manila folders filled with papers he said included corporate documents proving he had relinquished control of his companies to his children, but he refused to allow reporters to inspect them. In a recent video, Rudy Giuliani sat at a desk strewn with folders that he asserted contained damning evidence about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Bobulinski did something similar: He showed reporters three old cell phones with purportedly incriminating information that he claimed he would hand over to the authorities, but he didn't let reporters access them.

His next stop was the Nashville debate hall, where he was an invited guest of the president of the United States. This was all announced with great fanfare by the Trump campaign and accompanied by breathless coverage on Fox News and in The New York Post, the only two large news outlets to run with the story.

But so far the Bobulinski allegations seem like bubkes. At 10:47, minutes after the debate ended, the Wall Street Journal, part of the same media empire as Fox News and the Post, reported, “Text messages and emails related to the venture that were provided to the Journal by Mr. Bobulinski, mainly from the spring and summer of 2017, don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden” — the former vice president’s brother — “discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.”

Even if Bobulinski is telling the truth, that Joe Biden knew about the China enterprise, it’s not clear what the scandal is — he was a private citizen at the time and not yet running for president. Trump has elevated an unsubstantiated assertion that Biden had knowledge about his son’s legal and failed business venture to a “crime” for which he “should be in jail.” To put in context how absurd this allegation is, one of the first things George W. Bush did after he left the White House was deliver a paid speech in China. Somehow he remains at large.

This isn’t the first time that Trump has made this kind of political miscalculation this year. Before people like Giuliani convinced him that attacking Hunter was the key to a comeback, he was obsessed with defining Biden as a mentally impaired septuagenarian who was so “gonzo” he had to hand control over to the far left. At the first debate this caricature was easily defused by Biden simply standing there and speaking relatively cogently.

In Nashville, it lost more of its effectiveness when Biden repeatedly pointed out that he had defeated Bernie Sanders and other more left-wing candidates in the Democratic primaries, distancing himself without any qualms from the people Trump alleges he’s taking orders from.

Similarly, the Hunter bombshell has so far been defused because Trump’s exaggerations and over-the-top allegations bear no resemblance to the available facts.

The candidates spent little time on the issue and instead had what in 2020 passes for a substantive debate. Trump was polite and disciplined and sometimes even seemed in command of the issues as they sparred over the pandemic, energy policy, race, and health care. He was a version of the candidate who more than held his own against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

He pressed Biden aggressively on his responsibility for the mass incarceration of African Americans as a result of the 1994 crime bill. He scored a few points pushing Biden to seemingly acknowledge he wanted to phase out U.S. oil production. (“Would you close down the oil industry?” Trump asked. Biden responded, “I would transition the oil industry, yes.”) And on immigration policy, he forced Biden to defend the Obama-Biden administration’s spotty record on family separation.

It makes you wonder what Trump could have accomplished this year against Biden if he had focused on what’s front and center to voters and didn’t get so distracted and preoccupied by the sideshow.

The hard-to-follow 11-minute debate clash over foreign influence

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden delved into the pandemic, health insurance and energy in their final debate Thursday night. But for 11 minutes, they detoured down a labyrinthine path of personal charges and countercharges that voters likely struggled to follow.

Rapid-fire accusations of corruption, veering from the tax returns Trump has never released to the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter and the purported “laptop from hell,” punctuated the second segment of the debate. The candidates started off talking about the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation for months now, but they also captured the obsessions animating smaller subsets of Americans — without effectively describing either of them.

The debate eventually returned to policy questions, but not before Trump brought up unverified reporting about Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. The president hurled dollar figures he claims Biden’s family pocketed from foreign powers, trying to reclaim outsider status by branding Biden as corrupt.

Biden shot back, painting Trump as a tax-dodging plutocrat whose henchmen rely on Russian adversaries trying to dirty Biden’s name. Biden, for his part, said his release of 22 years of tax returns disprove the idea that any questionable income came his way and that he did not do anything with regard to Ukraine but carry out U.S. policy toward the country.

Surprisingly, it was Biden who first brought up Trump’s recent attacks on him and his son. The moment, nearly 30 minutes into the debate, started with a question about Russian interference in American elections, when moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News cited Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s announcement Wednesday night that foreign hackers were behind threatening emails to Democratic voters in Florida and Alaska.

Biden didn’t dwell long on Ratcliffe’s announcement, pivoting instead to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney who claims to be in possession of material from Hunter Biden’s hard drive — though Biden seemed initially to hesitate to go there.

“His own national security adviser told him that what is happening with his buddy — I shouldn't — actually, I will,” Biden said. “His buddy Rudy Giuliani. He's being used as a Russian pawn. He's being fed information that is Russian — that is not true.”

Trump, ignoring the question Welker posed to him, leapt to accuse Biden of getting “$3.5 million from Russia, and it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow, and it was the mayor of Moscow's wife.”

It was a cliff notes version of a footnote with little backup tucked away in a Senate Republican report, which reprised years-old claims that Biden acted improperly with regard to Ukraine. Biden has denied wrongdoing, and subsequent investigations and testimony of U.S. officials at the time have backed up the former vice president.

Trump also said that Biden was “selling pillows and sheets” and “I sold tank busters to Ukraine,” but it’s not clear what the president was referring to.

Then, without context, Trump veered to “all of the emails.” It sounded like a reprise of his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, but this time he was talking about emails purportedly to and from Biden’s son.

“The emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family,” Trump said, citing a “news conference” held just hours before the final debate, and “what he said was damning.”

It was a reference to a charge Biden’s campaign has denied: that he held a meeting with an official at the Ukrainian company where Hunter sat on the board. The New York Post claimed the alleged cache of Hunter Biden emails supplied by Giuliani includes evidence of this, but the emails alone don’t substantiate the claim.

Trump didn’t go any deeper before the former vice president got to answer. Biden volleyed back with an attack on Trump’s taxes, leaning on reporting from The New York Times that reported on a “secret bank account with China,” as Biden put it.

“Russia's paying you a lot. China's paying you a lot,” Biden continued. “And your hotels and all your businesses all around the country, all around the world. And China's building a new road to a new -- a golf course you have overseas. So what's going on here? Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”

Trump leaned on an old crutch, arguing his tax returns were under audit and unveiling a new contention that he “prepaid” millions of dollars in taxes in advance.

By this point, a viewer could be forgiven for losing track of the debate. Even fewer were likely to be swayed by what they were hearing. But Trump wasn’t done yet, accusing the Obama-Biden administration of “[spying] on my campaign” — an overstated claim Trump has made repeatedly, but which lacks context and evidence regarding the U.S. law enforcement investigation into possible ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump also aired long-held grievances about his own impeachment.

Welker interjected by posing individual questions, confronting Biden over Hunter’s business in Ukraine. Biden again contended that nothing his son did was unethical and that it didn’t affect Biden’s role in U.S. policy. Biden pointed to testimony of witnesses during Trump’s impeachment proceedings as evidence that “not one single solitary thing was out of line.”

“The only guy that made money from China is this guy,” Biden added, motioning to Trump. “He's the only one. Nobody else has made money from China.”

Trump, taking the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue approach, stepped in to accuse Biden’s “son, his brother, and his other brother are getting rich. They're like a vacuum cleaner. They're sucking --”

Welker cut Trump off, reminding him: “Okay. President Trump, thank you. We do need to move on.”

Welker briefly steered the debate into trade policy, with Biden and Trump arguing over whether Trump’s standoffs have harmed the heartland.

“I just gave $28 billion to our farmers,” Trump said.

“Taxpayers' money,” Biden replied. “Taxpayers' money. It didn't come from China.”

“You know who the taxpayer is,” Trump shot back. “It's called China.”

He went on about penalizing China for “killing our steel industry.”

Welker asked Biden to respond, giving the former vice president a change to inject a favorite buzzword into the final debate.

“My response is look, there's a reason why he's bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said. “There's a reason for it. He doesn't want to talk about the substantive issues.”

What we actually learned about Trump’s and Biden’s policies

The mute button apparently worked. The second and final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a much more staid affair than the chaos of the first — with far fewer interruptions and far more discussion of each candidate's policies.

There was, to be sure, a fair dose of personal attacks and political theatrics — from Rudy Giuliani's veracity to Hunter Biden's business dealings to whether Biden was really from Scranton, Pa.

But overall, the night produced a back-and-forth between the candidates that was far easier to follow, and in many cases about major policy differences. Here are some of the highlights:


Biden and Trump drew a sharp contrast over how each would handle the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden blasted Trump’s handling of the pandemic and said that the nation is about to “go into a dark winter” without a clear plan for battling the virus. He said he would establish national standards for reopening schools and businesses and provide more funding to help them do that.

Biden said he would encourage everyone to “wear a mask all the time” and invest in rapid coronavirus testing. He said that the standard for whether communities have to increase pandemic restrictions, like closing bars, should be based on the transmission rate in that place.

Trump, who claimed that a coronavirus vaccine would be coming “within weeks,” said that the country is “rounding the corner” on the disease, even as there is another spike in cases.

Trump blasted lockdowns and said that they’ve done more harm than good. He said that the country should reopen, including schools. “We’re learning to live with it,” Trump said of the coronavirus. “We have no choice.”


Trump touted his success in passing legislation to eliminate the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act that had required people to have health insurance or have to pay a penalty.

Trump said he wants to go further in eliminating the entire law, as his administration is advocating for the Supreme Court to do. “I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful health care” plan, he said, adding that he thought that Democrats in Congress would either be under “tremendous pressure” to go along with his plan or he would have a GOP-controlled House.

Trump again claimed claim that he wants to prevent health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, but he did not provide any specifics on how he would do that.

Biden, meanwhile, leaned in heavily to his health care plan, which he dubbed “Bidencare” and described as “Obamacare with the public option.” The $750 billion plan, he said, would protect people with pre-existing conditions, lower insurance premiums, reduce drug prices, and end unexpected medical billing.

Biden also pushed back against Trump’s suggestion that his plan was “socialized medicine.”

“I support private insurance,” Biden declared, boasting that he beat out his rivals in the Democratic primary who favored Medicare for All, single-payer plans. “I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them” on health care policy, Biden said.


Biden and Trump also sparred over whether Congress should allocate more funding to state and local governments as part of a coronavirus economic stimulus package.

Trump rejected House Democrats’ proposal as a “bailout of badly run, high-crime” cities and states that are run by Democrats.

Biden called for more federal assistance for state and local governments. “Every single state out there finds themselves in trouble,” he said. “They’re going to start laying off – whether they’re red or blue – cops, firefighters, first responders, teachers, because they have to balance their budget.”


Biden said he thought that the federal minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour. Families, including first-responders during the coronavirus pandemic, “deserve $15 an hour,” he said. “Anything below that puts you below the poverty level.”

Trump said that he thought that the issue should be left to states to decide because he’s concerned that increasing the minimum wage would harm businesses. “Some places, $15 is not so bad,” he said. “In other places, other states, $15 is ruins.”


Biden offered some rare criticism of the Obama administration during a discussion of immigration policy. Asked about deportations and family detention during the Obama administration, Biden responded: “We made a mistake. It took too long to get it right.”

Biden said that in his first 100 days he would propose immigration legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living in the country. He also noted that he would “immediately” recertify people who are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- which Trump has fought to end -- and put them on a path to citizenship.

Trump touted what he called a “strong border” with Mexico, hundreds of miles of new barriers, and tougher immigration enforcement policies, such as ending what he called “catch and release.” Asked about how his administration would reunite more than 500 children who were separated from their families at the border under his zero-tolerance policy, Trump said “we’re trying very hard.”


Biden said it was a “mistake” to vote in the 1980s for legislation that toughened penalties for drug offenses and said he now wanted “fundamentally change” the criminal justice system.

Biden proposed providing $20 billion to states to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing policies and set up drug courts. “No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem,” he said. “They should be going to rehabilitation, not to jail.”

Trump, for his part, touted his legislative victory on criminal justice reform, the First Step Act. Asked about whether his rhetoric was contributing to hate and racial strife, Trump also ticked off other policies that he said helped Black Americans, including Opportunity Zones and permanent, mandatory funding for historically black colleges and universities.


Biden called climate change an “existential threat to humanity.” He said he would eliminate federal subsidies to the oil industry and push the nation toward renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, which he said would create jobs and boost the economy.

“I would transition from the oil industry,” Biden said, adding that “it has to be replaced by renewable energy, over time.”

Biden said he would not support an outright ban on fracking, though he would move to prohibit the practice on federal lands.

Trump said that his administration had done “an incredible job environmentally” even as he touted his decision to pull the country out of the Paris Climate Accord, which he claimed would have cost “tens of millions of jobs.” He criticized renewable energy sources, claiming that windmills are too expensive and kill birds and that solar energy isn’t powerful enough.

‘The Debates, Like Everything Else in 2020, Were a Dumpster Fire’

Anyone tuning into Thursday night’s debate could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into some kind of alternate campaign timeline—with two political vets trading the normal kinds of jabs, in normal tones, with normal levels of spin.

Where was the chaos? The shouting? The rule-busting? And didn’t all those viewers claiming to be there for the policy arguments miss the theater just a little?

American voters only got two presidential debates in the 2020 general election, and in a normal year this one would have been hotly anticipated and carefully picked over, as Donald Trump and Joe Biden jabbed at each other over money, immigration, racial justice and their support for the oil industry. But as of the start time, close to 50 million Americans had already voted, and polls are locked in as they’ve ever been—so perhaps the biggest question is whether it was possible for this debate to change anything at all. And after this bizarre debate season—a meltdown, a cancellation, a rogue fly and this almost shockingly orthodox interaction, with a mute button—is it time to change what we really expect from debates?

We asked a roster of operatives, campaign analysts and other political insiders what they saw on stage Thursday night, both for the candidates and for debates themselves.

Some saw an argument for blowing up the format for good, but others were almost heartened at the return, very late in the game, to an almost normal-looking kind of politics. Here’s how they all sized it up.

‘Debates are supposed to be televised job interviews, not a form of reality TV’

For the first half-hour of this debate, Trump showed he is capable of heeding advice, specifically the advice he has been receiving to tone things down. If that version of Trump had persisted for the duration of the evening, he might have won on the basis of exceeding expectations. But he didn’t, thanks to a misguided attempt to tar Biden with a convoluted scandal that made zero sense. As the debate went on, Trump burrowed further and further down the rabbit hole, which at the end of the night is where he ended up.

Biden, meanwhile, maintained a calm but steady presence, which was all he really needed to do. Delivering his message cogently and with appropriate feeling, the former vice president emerged from the event with no reason to fret about his lead in the polls. A stand-out moment for the former VP: his impassioned denouncement of the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

So, what does the 2020 cycle bode for the 60-year-old institution of presidential debates? I’ll take a contrarian position and say that, despite Trump’s efforts to subvert the exercise, especially in round one, this year’s debates gave voters meaningful and valuable insights into the candidates as human beings, most notably the contrast between the two. While it’s true that substantive matters deserved more attention, in large measure the debates did what debates are supposed to do: reveal how the candidates comport themselves under intense pressure in an unscripted, unchoreographed environment.

The problem is not that debates are outmoded, or that the formats need updating, or that the moderators didn’t exert enough control, or that the Commission on Presidential Debates has lost its grip. The problem is that particular candidates can decide to violate the norms of electoral debates. When that happens, no one is satisfied. Post-Trump, I expect presidential debates will revert to their original conception. Debates are supposed to be televised job interviews that put voters in the driver’s seat, not a form of reality TV. The second 2020 debate was an example of the former, and the first 2020 debate an example of the latter.

‘I doubt this debate meant much for the election’

In practice, I doubt this debate meant much for the election. Few undecided voters remain. A lot of votes have already been cast early or by mail. I’d like to think this debate presented a template for candidates not being able to filibuster past time or interrupt each other quite so much, but I’m unconvinced the format will be used past this cycle. In 2024, we’re likely to have a whole fresh slew of more conventional politicians running, so I suspect I will be back to bog-standard debates as per normal.

‘It’s fair to wonder whether debates have run their course’

What did this debate mean for the election? Not much. What did this election mean for debates? Quite a bit.

Let’s start with Thursday night. Viewers saw a relatively substantive debate, at least compared to last time (admittedly, a low bar). The 90-minute session highlighted fundamental differences between Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s positions on coronavirus, immigration, family separation, North Korea, science, institutional racism, health care, climate change and leadership.

Beyond policy details, the candidates also articulated disparate visions for the country. Trump argued that a Biden presidency would be an economic disaster. Biden argued that a second term for Trump would result in countless deaths and misery. Trump scored political points by doubling down on his bravado and business experience. Biden scored points by leaning into his empathy and political successes. Trump closed the night by stoking fear. Biden ended on a note of unity. In a nutshell, no surprises.

There were also few surprises as far as performance metrics are concerned. After a disastrous first debate, Trump needed to demonstrate that he could refrain from being a bully for an hour and a half. And he did. Digressions about small windows, low IQs and “tree programs” notwithstanding, Trump remained generally well-disciplined.

Biden needed to show the American people that his strong first debate performance wasn’t a fluke—that he could, with mental acuity, provide detailed responses to a broad array of questions. And he did. Sure there were some awkward phrases—“rolling around in bed” and “minimum mandatories,” if we’re going to be petty—but Biden remained in control of the facts and his rhetoric.

And that’s why it mattered little for the election. The candidates showed us who we already know them to be.

More significant than what Thursday’s debate means for Election 2020, then, is what Election 2020 means for debates. Historically, debates provided a rare opportunity for voters to see candidates side-by-side, answering serious questions, and laying out a vision for the country. It’s unclear that most ever did much to change minds, but they certainly provided information to citizens as they prepared to cast votes.

With the proliferation of the information environment, the ease with which campaigns can communicate directly with voters, and the rise of partisan polarization, though, it is difficult to make the case that debates still serve their original functions. Indeed, Election 2020 put that reality on clear display for the American people. Voters know Trump and Biden. They’ve seen them campaign for a year. They have strong opinions about each. They’re willing to believe information that’s consistent with their predispositions and dismiss that which isn’t. Assuming that the Presidential Debate Commission could even find a respectable journalist willing to moderate a future event, it’s fair to wonder whether debates have run their course. They might simply be the latest casualty in an election cycle filled with death and despair.

‘Trump is headed toward a public firing on Nov 3, and he knows it’

The Trump campaign’s decision to spend the last year lowering expectations for Joe Biden might turn out to be the most consequential mistake of this election. Biden didn’t move the earth with his performance Thursday night, but he certainly looked prepared, energetic and ready to be the next president. The president didn’t just lower the bar for Joe Biden, he also lowered the bar for himself. After storming out of an interview with “60 Minutes” and backing out of debate No. 2, he didn’t repeat his strategy from the first debate of interrupting Biden at every turn. But he certainly didn’t pretend to act presidential or try to expand his support. Like usual, Trump played to his base and absolutely no one else.

Neither candidate moved the needle, but for the Biden campaign, that was exactly the strategy. Don’t make headlines, and don’t do anything to distract away from Trump’s imploding presidency. The clock is quickly running out for the president. Millions of Americans have already voted, and it’s looking like they’re doing so in historic numbers. This isn’t 2016, and he can’t rely on a slew of last-minute miracles to save him. This debate was one of the last chances Trump had to revive his spiraling campaign and he wasn’t able to land a punch. Trump is headed toward a public firing on Nov 3, and he knows it.

The debate commission did the best they could with the most unpredictable candidate in human history. The debates, like everything else in 2020, were a dumpster fire. But I’m confident this race will be an outlier. We need debates; we just also need two adults to participate in them.

‘This debate meant more for debates than it did for the election’

This debate meant more for debates than it did for the election. Momentum is with the Biden-Harris ticket, and this final debate was an opportunity for the president to arrest and perhaps reverse that. It didn’t happen. Despite repeated attempts by Trump to agitate him with attacks on family and charges of corruption, Biden remained focused and spoke to his reputation for honesty, truth telling and character. The president did not use his response time to talk about his record on the economy, arguably his strongest issue with voters.

Far different from the first presidential debate on September 29, which dissolved into a three-way shouting match, this forum was civil if not respectful, and largely responsive to the moderator’s questions. Congratulations to Kristen Welker for a job well done and to the debate commission for finally understanding that rules and discipline provide a better debate product than chaos and rancor.

Candidates have many tools at their disposal for sharing their policy ideas and approach to leadership and governing. What debates provide is an opportunity to see the candidates up close, candid and under pressure. Arguably one of the single most important events in this general election was the first debate, with another being the president's refusal to participate virtually in the second debate and his participation instead in a network town hall. Those events, coming as record breaking early voting was underway, have made a difference in the trajectory of this race.

Debates are still useful, but the commission needs to take a serious look at its successes and failures over this cycle and the last and determine the best way to provide a relevant forum to voters.

‘We’re impressed when the participants obey the agreed-upon rules. How very sad’

I give this debate three shoulder shrugs and one thumbs up. No matter what the campaigns say, the final forum won’t change many minds—because there aren’t many minds that aren’t made up. Plus, about 45 million Americans had voted before the debate started. If this giant chunk of the electorate tuned in at all, their votes were unaffected.

President Trump did prove one thing: When he wants to, he can act more or less like an adult. Problem is, he rarely has that desire. Pundits fell all over themselves to announce at the conclusion that the incumbent had “stopped the bleeding,” whatever that means. Unfortunately, many Covid patients hanging by a thread will be unable to do the same.

Joe Biden is not Cicero. He is never going to be Cicero. Yet he was vigorous and cogent for more than 90 minutes, which punctures the GOP slander that he is suffering from dementia.

Perhaps because I was fascinated as a child watching the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon faceoffs, I have always been a debate enthusiast. In 2020, debates have become more of an unpleasant chore. Our standards have fallen so low that we’re impressed when the participants obey the agreed-upon rules. How very sad—one more indication of the sickness that has infected the American political system.

‘Unlikely to provide anyone a lasting bump’

This debate looked a lot more like debates we saw in 2016. There was more policy substance than the first debate of this cycle (though it's not hard to beat zero). Both candidates made a few blunders, but none was insurmountable. Nothing happened to change the course of the race.

Biden’s goal was to do no harm, and while he may not have helped himself with answers about Obama’s immigration policy or health care, his performance didn’t hurt his current positive trajectory. Trump is running behind in the national polls and several key state polls, and while his performance Thursday was nowhere near the outlandish behavior he showed in the first debate, he didn’t do enough to affect the current course.

Trump’s best line was telling Texans that Biden wants to eliminate the oil industry. Even though the claim is implausible, the very fact that Texas is now in play is a bad sign for Republicans. Trump’s line might turn out to be effective damage control, but it’s hard to believe that an undecided voter tuned in and found that line to be the clincher.

Biden was more aggressive in his posture at this event, which some Democrats will appreciate. Overall, Biden made more of a connection with his audience through eye contact and personalized anecdotes than Trump did, which is a classic political strategy that Biden uses to good effect. There’s one Scaramucci (11 days) left in the 2020 campaign, and this final exchange between the candidates is unlikely to provide anyone a lasting bump.

In the context of growing partisan polarization, when there are fewer undecided voters, debates are less and less relevant. But they are still the only opportunity for the public to observe candidates in a direct interaction with one another, a valuable exercise in political discourse.

‘Trump impressed just by not seeming out of control’

Having set the bar ridiculously low in his last few appearances, President Trump impressed just by not seeming out of control Thursday night. But if he was more conversational, it made it easier to hear him clearly when he declared himself the least racist person in the room, or criticized a public option, or talked about the great care the children he orphaned get, or made fun of Joe Biden talking to Americans about their own families, or declined to answer good questions from Kristen Welker about Covid or the Talk. None of that was news from him, and his fans were not embarrassed by his tone this time, so Trump won Most Improved.

Joe Biden did not have his most triumphant outing: He got more righteously angry as the night went on, which mostly worked, but he spent most of the night talking to Welker or Trump, mostly not looking directly into the camera to talk to the folks at home, which he’d done effectively in the first debate. But he was ready for Trump’s Hunter attack—countering with a call for Trump to release his taxes, which knocked Trump back into a meek, dog-ate-my-homework response. And despite not hitting home runs on every answer, he more than held his own making his case on his popular policy positions. His empathy shone through, his command of the issues showed and he carried himself like an American president.

This probably stops the narrative of Trump growing increasingly unhinged, for a night at least, but it doesn’t change many opinions about who should lead our country. For the front-runner, that’s a win.

‘A draw’

The final showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a draw: Trump didn’t repeat his horrible first debate antics, and Biden didn’t do anything to hurt himself or his lead in the national polls. As for the debates themselves, as we head into 2024, I think we will see very different models of how we engage voters and the public in the political process. Presidential debates today are not real debates. I was captain of my high school debate team, and these debates pale in comparison. America needs to reenergize the public square starting in 2021. We need real debates, on topics that the people choose. I think the debate commission failed in two out of the three debates this cycle. Thursday night, Kristen Welker did an amazing job as the moderator. There was no drama. And democracy was served better for it.

‘By the standards of any normal presidential year, this would be a terrible debate’

By the standards of any normal presidential year, this would be a terrible debate, but by the standards of the 2020 campaign—which included one bizarre presidential meltdown and one canceled debate—this was as close as America is going to get to anything like a real debate. I find it perplexing, however, that Kristen Welker’s moderation is receiving so much praise. While Donald Trump clearly was in fear of the new mute button threat, he quickly realized not only that it would not be used, but that his week spent attacking Welker was time well spent. As he gained more confidence, he bulldozed Welker for the last word on every subject, and the result was a “debate” where Joe Biden had to explain his policy proposals in detail, while Trump told recycled rally stories. Trump was then allowed to bat cleanup on almost every question, forcing Biden to deny charges or challenge outright falsehoods with just seconds to spare—often leading Welker to grant Trump yet another response. Others have praised the single-moderator format, but perhaps we should return to a two-moderator panel in order to vary the interaction between the candidates and the questioners over 90 minutes.

‘Biden stayed ahead’

Trump might’ve interrupted less than the last debate, but the substance of his response was utterly lacking and steeped in falsehoods about many things including Covid, immigration, health care, his taxes and his bank account in China. His most energetic jabs at Biden came in the form of repeating right-wing accusations against Hunter Biden, rather than attacks on Joe Biden’s record. Biden is strongest when he uses his empathy to discuss policies and appeals to the American people. He did that again on Thursday, talking directly to the camera to address families who have been affected by Covid and who are regularly affected by racism. He talked about what he would do to improve health care. He refused to hit back against the Trump family when the president attacked Biden about his family. In this debate, Biden stayed ahead, and Trump did little to dent that lead.

I believe debate formats have been forever changed because of the pandemic. Virtual debates should be considered moving forward, and the mute button should be used more. Even though this debate was well moderated, it is important to hear each candidate, especially if there are multiple candidates in the primaries. Debates can still help change the course of an election, or they can cement existing perceptions of a candidate.

‘Any voter who learned anything new must have been on a very long hiking trip for the past year’

For decades now, what we charitably call “presidential debates” have rarely been anything more than competitions to make the opposing nominee make some stupid gaffe, get caught in an obvious lie or appear hostile to some significant constituency of voters. No one really expects a serious exchange of views on critical issues, nor does the media or the public demand one.

On at least two brief occasions, Thursday night’s performers, excuse me, contenders did lay out substantive differences about critical issues. Biden made a spirited case for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour; Trump argued that to do so would be an impossible burden on small business owners in some states but perhaps not others. Biden outlined his ambitious plan for a transition to renewable energy, while Trump claimed that it would be both too expensive and destroy the oil industry.

For the most part, however, each man jabbed at his opponent in predictable, intermittently effective ways and revealed, yet again, personalities that have either attracted or repelled millions. Trump did nothing but scorn Biden as a do-nothing politician who somehow hid his role as the mastermind of a great corruption scheme. Biden was most comfortable talking about policies he would implement—and damning Trump for mishandling the pandemic. Any voter who learned anything new must have been on a very long hiking trip for the past year or so, without a smartphone.

Trump probably reassured his base voters, while Biden contented his. Neither said anything to shake my conviction that the outcome of this election should be—and I think will be—decided by how voters respond to an update of the famous question Ronald Reagan asked during the sole debate in 1980: Are you and your country better off now than four years ago?

‘Biden, for some reason, still can't get it together on two issues’

Unpopular opinion: While Biden might have scored most of the essential “fact check” and empathy points to achieve a technical win, Trump was still given way too much leg room to look, oddly … rational, as chillingly sinister as he was in all of his answers.

For Trump, the campaign right now is about parasitically eating away at the edges of whatever slice of voters he can find that are doubtful enough, while simultaneously engineering voter suppression strategies to eliminate other voters. He knows he can’t win by a landslide; he can only win by cheating and/or creating confusion in the public discourse. This debate could have achieved some of that goal. Then again, perhaps some of us are worrying too much. If you're a Democratic strategist or in Biden’s camp, you’re quietly sweating (and frantically spinning away) that Trump was less combative, was less cantankerous and looked much smoother, despite buckets of lies and obfuscation.

Biden, for some reason, still can’t get it together on two issues: 1) the 1994 crime bill and 2) fracking. He needs to resolve the first because it’s having a severe impact on sorely needed Black voter support. And he needs to answer the second question more smoothly because he’ll lose Pennsylvania if he doesn’t. On the crime bill, he just can’t come up with the effective response that’s there for the taking: “Since when did you care about Black men in jail, Mr. President, when you were buying ads in the New York Times to punish five innocent Black teenagers and call yourself Mr. Law and Order who wants to use police to kill Black men?” Or he could simply apologize and say, “If we knew back then what we know now…” On fracking, he could simply say, “Look, these are the jobs gained from a new, clean energy economy, and these are the jobs stagnant or lost in an old-school fossil fuel economy.”

Still, Trump continued to showcase his utter lack of compassion for anything or anyone that exists outside of himself. Perhaps viewers got a sense of that. Or perhaps they didn’t.

Ultimately, we do know that presidential debates are changed forever. Use of the mute button wasn’t all that remarkable or frequent, even, but it will probably stay on as a staple of debate life. Viewers are going to demand debates that are full of substance and clear exchanges on policy platforms rather than screaming matches. There will be a thirst for more structure, and for more control and discipline from moderators. We’ll also probably see an effort dedicating more time to townhall formats and issue-specific events.

‘The debates themselves are due for a makeover’

Who knew that Hunter Biden, the ne’er-do-well son of Joe, represents the greatest foreign policy issue confronting America? Donald Trump tried his mightiest to elevate the piffle, much of which comes from Russia with malice, about Hunter’s putative dealings with Ukraine, China and goodness knows where else to depict Joe as a Napoleon of crime. It flopped. Trump wanted a cage match, but he barely landed a punch as he descended into a fantastic bog of conspiracy theories that was intelligible only to the initiated. As Trump thrashed about, Biden seized the opportunity to highlight Trump’s own massive self-dealing as president, suggesting that here was a case of projection if there ever was one.

The kerfuffle over Hunter’s peccadilloes was symptomatic of the entire debate. Sure, Trump was more restrained than the last debate, and Biden less openly derisive. But a substantive debate on foreign policy or any other issue? It remained as elusive as a Covid vaccine.

The debates themselves are due for a makeover. The calamity that took place in the first debate was narrowly avoided this time, as Trump sought to restrain himself and Kristen Welker periodically rapped his knuckles. In future debates, the role of the moderator should be enhanced, including putting him or her on the same physical plane as the candidates and employing a buzzer to cut off candidates when they exceed their allotted time.

‘Donald Trump fundamentally needed to change the terms of this election, and he did not’

To put it bluntly, the president is f---ed. Fifty million people have voted. Donald Trump fundamentally needed to change the terms of this election, and he did not. On healthcare, coronavirus and climate, he failed again to articulate a plan to help Americans with pre-existing conditions, unemployed from coronavirus or facing unprecedented wildfires. Snap polls show that debate watchers think he lost the debate and came off as untrustworthy. Meanwhile, Biden gave his best answers yet on climate change, showing that he’s listening to the scientific experts, the unions representing impacted workers and the communities on the frontlines of pollution and poverty. He has outlined a positive vision of how to govern for all Americans and the communities that are hurting most. Snap polling shows that a majority of voters think Biden’s plans to guide the economy to recovery are stronger.

This election will show that you can’t win an election or a debate entirely on fabrication. Trump has run his campaign bouncing from narrative to narrative without grounding his re-election campaign in actual governance. Voters don’t want to hear about why the other candidate is trash; they want real policies guided by evidence that actually helps the American people. Future debates should deliver more concrete policy specifics to the American people, rather than Trumpian obfuscation.

‘Attempting to control Trump is not for the faint of heart’

Hallelujah! The muting of each candidate during his opponent’s opening answers might have actually resurrected some sense of what a presidential debate should look like. We could actually hear the contenders speak. Going into the debate, I feared for Kristin Welker, the moderator, given Trump’s propensity for attacking and demeaning women, particularly Black women. Thankfully, he did not tell her she was “rude” or “hostile,” as he reportedly once said to veteran journalist April Ryan. He didn’t tell her to “be nice” and “not threatening,” as he once said to PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor. Nor did he call Welker a “monster,” as he has said of Senator Kamala Harris. NBC’s Welker had complete control, and, as we saw just a few weeks ago, attempting to control Trump is not for the faint of heart.

Thursday’s debate succeeded in doing exactly what our democracy demands. It gave the American public an opportunity to judge the content of the character of the men who wish to lead the greatest nation on earth. If you were unable to do so before Thursday night, you should now be able to answer the question of what you want our nation to stand for. Will we elect a man who sees the nation as red states and blue states, or a man who, as Biden said, would be an “American president”? Will we elect a man who seemingly has no remorse for the 223,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19, or the more than 44,000 children who were diagnosed with the virus in the past week alone? Will we elect a man who compares himself to Abraham Lincoln, and believes that he has done more for the African American community than any other president? Will we elect a man who is responsible for separating 545 children from their parents at the border and has no plan to reunite them? Will we elect a man who throws out terms meant to divide us—“the China virus,” “coyotes” “pigs in a blanket,” “AOC plus three”—and then declares that he’s the least racist person in the room?

Biden was superb; this was arguably the best debate performance he has ever had. He had the tone, tenor, demeanor and empathy of the president that so many Americans long for. He was almost “Obamaesque,” and succeeded in reminding the American public and the world what our nation stood for four very long years ago.

Trump’s behavior and the dizzying number of primary candidates this cycle have probably changed presidential debates forever, but we need debates, muting or not. When done well, they can reflect what the soul of our nation can and should be.

‘We can expect that future presidential debates will include muted microphones’

In the second and final presidential debate, Americans witnessed a much less raucous, more coherent, and more substantive—in other words, a more normal—discussion than the first debate just three weeks ago. That being said, it is safe to say the 90-minute exchange between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will likely not fundamentally alter the presidential race, with over 48 million Americans having already voted, and so few Americans who remain undecided.

However, in my view, President Trump’s performance was measured, on message and controlled. Thus, for any remaining undecided voters and Republican-oriented voters who may have been discouraged by the president’s chaotic first debate, Trump’s performance Thursday night likely reassured these voters, and may even have led some to return to the fold. Moreover, the president’s performance established that, while Biden is ahead, the former vice president’s victory is not a forgone conclusion. And make no mistake, it is within the realm of possibility that President Trump will stage a comeback that is reminiscent of his upset in 2016.

Furthermore, while this debate may have not transformed the 2020 presidential race in any meaningful way, this new debate structure will likely become the new rule in all presidential debates going forward, and will redefine how presidential debates are conducted. Given the improved tone and tenor of this discussion, we can expect that future presidential debates will include muted microphones, strict procedures and defined speaking times—not to mention the overwhelmingly negative reaction that the first presidential debate elicited from voters across the aisle, and the damage that unhinged debates inevitably have on our discourse and democracy.

Kristen Welker proves to be taming force at Trump and Biden’s final showdown

Kristen Welker of NBC News took control of the debate stage on Thursday night, steadily wrangling a more muted Donald Trump and even earning praise from the president at one point — though not all of the White House’s allies had such kind words about the moderator’s primetime performance.

It was a high-pressure moment for Welker. The moderators of the prior two general election debates — Chris Wallace of Fox News and Susan Page of USA Today — had received widespread criticism for letting the candidates trample over one another while dodging questions. And Trump and his campaign have repeatedly attacked Welker in recent days over allegations of liberal bias.

But roughly an hour into his second showdown with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Trump displayed a markedly different tone toward the veteran White House correspondent.

“By the way, so far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this. I have to say,” Trump remarked, stretching an open palm toward Welker’s desk inside the debate hall at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

It was one of many moments throughout the 90 minutes of programming that Trump appeared to have at least partly heeded the advice of aides who encouraged him to take a less combative approach in dealing with his opponent and the moderator.

At several points, Trump accepted Welker’s prodding to move from one subject to the next, as well as her interjections amid his discursive broadsides. But Welker also pressed Biden directly on accusations related to his son’s foreign business dealings, pleasing some conservatives.

A few allies of the president expressed approval of Welker, with Jenna Ellis, the senior legal adviser to Trump’s campaign, assessing on Twitter that the journalist was “doing a decent job.”

But other Republicans, including American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp, criticized Welker’s interruptions of the president and complained that “NBC is in the bag for Biden.”

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, tallied that Welker interrupted Trump more than five times as much as she did Biden, and Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, tweeted that Welker “is interrupting way too much.”

Overall, however, the debate did not resemble the fiery confrontation between Trump and Biden at their first forum last month, when Chris Wallace lost control of the proceedings. On Thursday night, Wallace conceded that he was “jealous” of Welker's debate.

“I would’ve liked to have been able to moderate that debate and to get a real exchange of views, instead of hundreds of interruptions,” he said. “I thought it was a good debate. A good, substantive debate.”

Welker’s well-received showing as referee of the final debate came in the closing days of a White House race that has seen moderators emerge as subjects of contention and controversy.

Even before he formally began battling Biden earlier this year, Trump had complained about the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates ever since it acknowledged there was an audio snafu with his microphone during his first forum with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In August, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani submitted to the debate commission a list of two dozen potential moderators pre-approved by the campaign, consisting mostly of journalists regarded as friendly to the president in their coverage.

The commission ignored Giuliani’s suggestions, and when Trump and Biden met on stage for the first time last month, the moderator was Wallace. In that inaugural face-off, the president repeatedly bulldozed through the Fox News anchor’s questions and the Democratic nominee’s responses, offering a series of baseless claims.

The chaotic affair prompted the commission to consider format changes “to ensure a more orderly discussion,” and it was ultimately decided Monday that the candidates’ microphones would be muted during the two-minute opening remarks at the start of each 15-minute segment of the final debate.

Susan Page did not fare much better when she moderated the vice presidential debate earlier this month. Despite her pointed questions, Page failed to follow up on evasive answers by the candidates and was criticized for not doing more to stop Republican incumbent Mike Pence from interrupting Democratic running mate Kamala Harris.

The second presidential debate, originally scheduled to take place last Thursday, was thrown into doubt amid concerns over the president’s infectiousness following his testing positive for Covid-19. After Trump objected to the commission’s announcement that the debate would be conducted virtually, the event was scrapped completely as he and Biden booked dueling televised town halls on separate networks.

The second debate had also been complicated by an unfolding social media scandal involving C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, the planned moderator, who claimed his Twitter account was hacked after Trump’s allies seized upon some of his past posts. Scully admitted last week that he had not been hacked, and he was suspended from work.

Trump did not avoid tough questioning after the cancellation of the second debate, instead being grilled by “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie during an NBC town hall event last Thursday night that aired alongside Biden’s town hall on ABC. Trump in recent days has criticized Guthrie, whose tenacious efforts to pin down the president were applauded by pundits.

On Tuesday, two weeks from Election Day, Trump launched a public assault on another journalist, CBS News’ Lesley Stahl, after he shut down a testy interview with the well-respected “60 Minutes” correspondent at the White House. Trump tweeted a short clip of a maskless Stahl speaking with producers, and followed through Thursday on a threat to preemptively release video of their conversation.

But much of the president’s fury over the past two weeks has been trained on Welker, with Trump steadily ramping up his attacks before the final debate. The feud seemingly began last Monday, when Trump retweeted a false claim that the reporter had “mysteriously delete[d]” her Twitter account.

Although Welker apparently briefly deactivated her account after Scully lied about being hacked, it has since been restored and was accessible ahead of the debate Thursday.

In an interview with Newsmax last Wednesday, Trump called Welker a “disaster” and a “never-Trumper from NBC.” Trump first invoked her in a campaign rally setting on Saturday, telling supporters in Wisconsin that Welker was “extraordinarily unfair” and claiming that she had “deleted her entire account.”

On Monday, Trump described Welker as a “dyed-in-the-wool, radical-left Democrat” while speaking to reporters on an airport tarmac in Phoenix, and he went on to target her during a campaign rally later that day in Prescott, Ariz. “She’s been screaming questions at me for a long time, and she’s no good,” he said.

In a “Fox & Friends” interview Tuesday morning, Trump argued that Welker was “terrible,” “totally partisan” and “far worse than Scully.” He also claimed that “her father and mother are big supporters” of Biden and the Democratic Party, and have been “for a long time.”

Trump mentioned Welker’s parents again at a town hall event that aired Wednesday on the Sinclair Broadcasting Network, saying that they “supported the Democrats” and that Welker herself was a Democrat, adding: “I know her well.”

Federal Election Commission records do not show that Welker has donated money to any political candidates. But conservatives have promoted a New York Post report published Saturday noting that her parents have contributed to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic candidates including Biden.

The Post also reported that Welker previously registered as a Democrat in Washington, D.C., in 2012, and in Rhode Island in 2004. However, her current voter registration is not affiliated with any party.

Trump has not always appeared to have such a antagonistic attitude toward Welker. After she won the role of co-anchor on the weekend edition of NBC’s “Today” show in January, the president complimented the White House reporter at a news conference in Switzerland.

Congratulations on your show,” he said. “They made a very wise decision.”

Where's the beef? For Biden, it's 'c'mon'

A few catch-phrases in presidential history have risen above the debates themselves. There’s Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” Or Walter Mondale's “Where's the beef?" Al Gore’s sigh and Dubya’s nod also instantly became iconic. Joe Biden made his own attempt at catch-phrase history Thursday night, with “C’mon.”

Here's a rundown of the nine times he uttered the word.

Covid will be over soon

After Trump downplayed the severity of the virus — “I don’t know that we’re going to have a dark winter at all, we’re opening up our country.” — Biden let out his first exasperated “C’mon” of the night.

“I go back to this. He did nothing, he did virtually nothing. And then he gets out of the hospital and he talks about, don't worry, it's all going to be over soon. C’mon. There's not another serious scientist in the world who thinks it's going to be over soon.”

During the same exchange, he criticized Trump for saying people were "learning to live with" the coronavirus. "Learning to live with it. C'mon. We're dying with it," Biden said.

Closing down

Trump accused Biden of excessive fear of the pandemic, saying “he wants to close down -- he'll close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy says we should close it down.”

“Simply not true,” Biden responded, working up to his signature dismissal as he mocked the president’s position: “And by the way, all you teachers out there, not that many of you are going die, so don't worry about it, so don't worry about it. C’mon.”

The president’s tax-release timeline

In response to questions about reports he paid $750 in income taxes for two of the last four years, Trump pledged, again, to release his tax returns at some point.

Biden: “He's been saying this for four years. Show us. Just show us. Stop playing around…. Last time he said what he paid, he said, ‘I only pay that little because I'm smart. I know how to game the system.’ C’mon. C’mon, folks.”

North Korea

After Biden attacked Trump for his favorable comments about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump said their friendly relations had averted war on the Korean peninsula and that Kim wouldn't meet with Barack Obama when he was president because Kim "didn't like" Obama.

Biden's response: The U.S. "had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe. The rest of Europe. C'mon. The reason [Kim] would not meet with President Obama is because president Obama said we're going to talk about denuclearization."

‘Socialized medicine’

Trump accused Biden of secretly wanting “socialized medicine and health care. When he talks about a public option, he's talking about destroying your Medicare…and destroying your Social Security.”

Biden: “He's very confused. He thinks he's running against somebody else. He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people… This is the guy who's tried to cut Medicare. So, I don't — the idea that Donald Trump is lecturing me on Social Security and Medicare? C’mon.”

Prospects for a second Covid economic relief package

Trump accused the Democrats of holding up relief for political reasons: “Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to approve anything because she would love to have some victories on a date called November 3rd.”

Biden was not amused, pointing to the fact that House Democrats passed a massive additional relief package in May. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Biden said, “will not support that…C’mon. What's the matter with this guy?”

Trump’s record on race

Trump assured voters he’s “the least racist person,” after reprising his argument that, save perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, he’s done more for Black Americans than any president in history.

Biden all but snorted. “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one,” Biden said. “C’mon, this guy is a dog whistle about as big as a fog horn.”

Biden carries big cash advantage into final weeks of election

Former Vice President Joe Biden is carrying a cash advantage of more than $100 million over President Donald Trump into the final weeks of the election, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday revealed that Biden, the Democratic National Committee and two affiliated committees had $331.2 million in the bank as of Oct. 14, while Trump, the Republican National Committee and two of their fundraising affiliates had $223.6 million in reserve.

The filings also show that Biden continues to significantly outspend Trump. The president's campaign raised $44 million and spent $63 million in the first two weeks of October, while Biden raised $130 million and dropped $145 million — more than $10 million a day during that time.

The Republican National Committee raised $38 million and spent $43 million, while the Democratic National Committee raised $37 million and spent $59 million from Oct. 1-14.

Though Biden has taken a wide lead over Trump in the cash race, Trump has dismissed the idea that it would hinder his campaign. “We don’t need money, we have plenty of money,” Trump said during Thursday night’s debate. “In fact, we beat Hillary Clinton with a tiny fraction of the money” she raised.

The Biden campaign has used its cash advantage to swamp Trump on the airwaves. Biden has drastically outspent Trump on TV, airing $178 million more in TV ads from June 1 through Election Day, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

The vast sums of money are chasing a shrinking subset of the electorate, with over 48 million Americans already casting their ballots, according to data from the U.S. Elections Project. That's equal to more than 35 percent of the total turnout in 2016, as voters both submit mail ballots in record numbers and rush to the polls for early in-person voting.

Several critical swing states are running ahead of the national pace as well. Michigan has already hit 39 percent of its 2016 turnout mark, while Wisconsin is already at 38 percent of 2016 turnout. North Carolina has cracked 51 percent, and Texas is the national leader at more than 65 percent.

FTC discusses potential antitrust case against Facebook

The Federal Trade Commission’s staff have made a recommendation to the agency’s commissioners on whether to file an antitrust complaint against Facebook, three people familiar with the agency’s probe said Thursday — a potential new milestone in Washington’s fight to rein in Silicon Valley.

The FTC’s five commissioners met to discuss a potential case Thursday afternoon, though a final decision isn’t expected for several weeks. The people discussing the case did not know whether the staff recommended suing the social network, which has faced criticism for its privacy practices and acquisitions of smaller rivals.

The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the probe. Facebook declined to comment and the FTC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Thursday’s meeting came two days after the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, and as coalitions of state attorneys general are weighing whether to bring their own complaints against the search giant. Facebook — with more than 2.2 billion users worldwide — ranks second behind Google in claiming a share of revenue from the online advertising market.

Attorneys general from multiple states are also pursuing antitrust probes against Facebook, though it is unclear whether they would be able to join the FTC’s case if the agency files one.

The FTC investigative process involves teams of antitrust attorneys, economists and litigators who can each make their own recommendation to the agency’s commissioners on whether to pursue a case. Attorneys from the agency’s Bureau of Competition marshal documents and witness interviews, while staff in the Bureau of Economics analyze economic theories and models to determine whether they have enough evidence to support a case.

Each bureau makes its own recommendation to the commissioners in support of or against a case, and sometimes the bureaus disagree. In an FTC probe of Google in 2012, for example, competition lawyers supported bringing a case challenging some of the search giant’s behavior while economists were opposed. (That investigation ended with the commissioners deciding not to file charges.)

Meanwhile, litigators in the FTC general counsel’s office can make a recommendation on whether the agency should pursue a case in federal court or before the FTC’s in-house judge. Litigation strategies differ depending on which path the FTC chooses.

FTC staff have been investigating Facebook since June 2019, and state attorneys general opened their own probe in September of that year. The state investigation, led by New York Attorney General Tish James, involves 47 attorneys general from the states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. More recently, the FTC has opened a probe into Facebook’s acquisition of GIF library Giphy, a popular source of animated graphics.

The FTC’s investigation has largely focused on Facebook’s previous acquisitions, including its 2012 purchase of photo-sharing app Instagram and the 2014 purchase of messaging service WhatsApp, two of the people said. Meanwhile, New York state has concentrated on Facebook’s conduct such as its moves to cut off rivals’ access to user data.

One potential complication of that division of duties: The FTC generally prefers to use its in-house court to bring cases involving completed mergers. That process, however, requires the FTC to proceed on its own, and would eliminate any participation by the states. If the FTC opted for its administrative proceeding, the states would be left to proceed by themselves in federal court on a more limited legal theory.

It isn’t unusual for the FTC commissioners to meet several times before reaching a decision in a major case. They met at least three times before voting 3-2 last summer to accept Facebook’s $5 billion settlement related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Conservatives pounce on Biden’s desire to move away from oil

Conservatives pummeled former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday for saying he wanted to transition away from the oil industry, accusing the Democratic nominee of being callous with the economy in his proposals for tackling climate change.

“I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said during the final presidential debate.

“Oh. There’s a big statement,” President Donald Trump responded.

“It is a big statement,” Biden shot back.

Biden has called climate change an existential threat to the country and said he would prioritize renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind. He emphasized that the transition would be gradual, but said he wanted to move to net-zero emissions in energy production by 2035.

After the debate, Biden clarified to reporters that he didn’t want to end the fossil fuel industry, but rather get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.

Still, Biden’s remark onstage in Nashville, Tenn., led to a fierce backlash from Republicans and Trump.

“Basically, what he’s saying is that he is going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump said. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania? Will you remember that, Oklahoma?”

Throughout his campaign appearances, Trump has cast Biden’s plan for combating climate change as an unrealistically expensive enterprise that would harm American industries. Shortly after the debate, the Trump campaign cast Biden’s comment as the most shocking moment of the event, saying that moving away from the oil industry would “kill millions of jobs and cripple our economy.”

Other conservatives chimed in on Biden’s comments a short while later. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas tweeted that a transition from the oil industry would mean a “transition away from Texas.”

Biden “just killed paycheck earned by hardworking families in Texas,” Abbott wrote. “Remember that on election day.”

Rick Perry, Trump’s former Energy secretary and a former governor of Texas, echoed those sentiments in his own tweets denouncing a transition away from the oil industry, saying such a move would effectively kill 11 million jobs.

The opposition wasn’t just from Republicans. Kendra Horn, a Democratic House candidate in the oil-rich state of Oklahoma, tweeted that she disagreed with Biden, saying, “We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”

“We need an all-of-the-above energy approach that’s consumer friendly, values energy independence, and protects OK jobs,” she wrote.

During the debate, Biden emphasized support for his energy plan among labor groups for creating new jobs in the clean-energy sector. His campaign points out that solar installers and wind turbine technicians are foreseen as two of the fastest-growing occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It's the fastest-growing jobs and they paid good prevailing wages, 45, 50 bucks an hour,” Biden said. “We can grow and we can be cleaner if we go the route I’m proposing.”

Biden says his and Obama's immigration record was a ‘mistake’

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he and former President Barack Obama “made a mistake” because they did not achieve comprehensive immigration reform during their administration.

The remark came after President Donald Trump on Thursday night defended his administration’s policy of separating families at the border — a move that has been deeply criticized and was reversed in 2018. The parents of more than 500 children separated under that policy cannot be found.

During the debate, however, Trump went after Biden and Obama for creating detention facilities for undocumented immigrants in the first place.

“Who made the cages, Joe,” Trump said.

Biden said he would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if elected.

Trump also mocked the Obama administration’s “catch and release” policy, which allowed undocumented immigrants to self-report for immigration court hearings.

Trump said only immigrants with the “lowest IQ” would voluntarily report for a court hearing.

Approximately 44 percent of non-detained removal cases end up as no-shows, according to the Justice Department.

Biden slams Trump for his friendship with Kim Jong Un

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized President Donald Trump for touting his friendly relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Trump, who met with Kim several times in 2018 and 2019, said his friendship with the North Korean leader has helped keep peace in the region. He compared his relationship with North Korea to that of President Barack Obama’s, saying that the former president had grave concerns about a nuclear war with the country before passing on the presidency.

“North Korea, we're not in a war. We have a good relationship,” Trump said at Thursday night's debate.

Biden didn’t mince his words in his reply. “That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded … the rest of Europe. Come on."

Biden added that Obama didn’t meet with Kim because the former president refused to back down from demanding denuclearization. Biden said he wouldn’t meet with Kim unless the Korean peninsula becomes a nuclear-free zone.

Biden says Obamacare will become Bidencare

Joe Biden on Thursday night invoked the term Bidencare when discussing his plans to build upon the Affordable Care Act, signaling his intention to rebrand former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

“What I’m going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option, become Bidencare,” the Democratic nominee said.

Biden has long opposed a total government takeover of the American health care system. In the 2020 Democratic primary, he bested more-progressive opponents, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who advocated Medicare for All.

Biden’s remarks at the final presidential debate came after President Donald Trump acknowledged that he was seeking to “terminate” Obamacare while promising to “come up with a brand new, beautiful health care” plan. But over the past four years, the White House and congressional Republicans have failed to put forth a comprehensive replacement.

Trump says he prepaid ‘millions and millions’ in taxes

President Donald Trump said he had prepaid millions in taxes to explain why documents reported by the New York Times showed he had only paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016.

“Deep down in the IRS, they treat me horribly,” Trump said at Thursday night's presidential debate. “We made a deal. It was all settled until I decided to run for president. I get treated very badly by the IRS. Very unfairly.

"But we had a deal all done. As soon as we're completed with the deal — I want to release it. But I have paid millions and millions of dollars. And it's worse than paying. I paid in advance. It's called prepaying your taxes.”

Trump, who called the $750 a “filing fee,” also said he is committed to releasing his tax returns once he is no longer under audit, according to the advice of his accountant, but he did not provide a timeline for when that would happen.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has released 22 years of tax returns as part of his presidential campaign.

“You have not released a single solitary year of your tax returns. What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling?” Biden asked Trump.

“The foreign countries are paying you a lot. Russia's paying you a lot. China's paying you a lot. … Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”

Trump defends his Chinese bank account

President Donald Trump defended himself during Thursday’s debate after a New York Times report revealed that he had a bank account in China and had paid taxes in that country.

“I have many bank accounts and they're all listed and they're all over the place,” Trump said. “I was a businessman doing business.”

Trump said that his bank account in China was from 2013 and that he closed it in 2015 just before running for president. Moderator Kristen Welker pointed out that Trump has not divested from his businesses since taking office and has often continued to promote his businesses.

Trump has repeatedly gone after Joe Biden by alleging his family improperly financially benefited from his vice presidency, including profitable business deals in China. Biden has frequently denied the allegations. The two candidates engaged in an exchange, each accusing the other of accepting money from foreign entities.

Biden issues a pre-emptive strike on Giuliani, opening the door to Trump

For all the anticipation about how President Donald Trump would deploy Hunter Biden's business deals in the debate, it was Joe Biden who became the first to raise Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been leading the effort to dig up dirt on the Bidens.

"He's being used as a Russian pawn," Biden said, after name-checking Rudy and describing him as Trump's "buddy." "He's being fed information that's not true."

Biden was referring to Giuliani's meeting in December in 2019 with Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker assessed by the U.S. government to be a Russian agent.

The exchange allowed Trump to raise a series of allegations about Hunter that have aired in conservative media outlets in recent days -- leading to a full-throated denial from Biden.

"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life," Biden replied. "Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption."

Biden warns of ‘dark winter’ in America

Joe Biden warned at Thursday night’s presidential debate that the U.S. was “about to go into a dark winter,” echoing the concerns of public health experts who caution about increased daily Covid-19 case counts converging with the annual flu season.

“We’re about to go into a dark winter. A dark winter,” Biden said. “And he has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”

Biden’s remarks came after President Donald Trump offered a rosy, unrealistic timeline for vaccine distribution. Responding to the Democratic nominee, the president said: “I don’t know if we’re going to have a dark winter at all. We’re opening up our country. We’ve learned and studied and understand the disease, which we didn’t at the beginning.”

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, previously predicted in July that “the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health.”

But Trump insisted Thursday that Americans were “learning to live with” the pandemic. “We have no choice. We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” he said.

When it was Biden’s turn to weigh in, the former vice president retorted: “People are learning to die with it.” The two candidates then sparred over Trump’s travel restrictions on China, and whether Biden considered the measure xenophobic.

“My response is he is xenophobic,” Biden said of Trump, “but not because he shut down access from China.”

Judge rules sexual assault case against the military's No. 2 officer can proceed

A federal judge ruled Thursday that a retired officer's sexual assault case against Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the military's second-highest ranking officer, can proceed to the next phase.

The ruling, issued by Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is a major win for retired Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser after the Air Force last year said it could not corroborate her accusations against Hyten. At the time, Spletstoser had accused Hyten, then President Donald Trump's nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in a hotel room at a conference in 2017.

Hyten has denied Spletstoser's accusations and argued she couldn't sue him because the alleged assault was "incident to military service," a key element of the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits service members from being sued in civil court and has generally prevented troops from suing their superior officers.

The judge denied the motion on Thursday, arguing that the alleged assault could not "conceivably serve any military purpose."

"Regardless of whether General Hyten came to Plaintiff’s hotel room under the pretense of work-related purposes, it is not conceivable that his military duties would require him to sexually assault Plaintiff, or that such an assault would advance any conceivable military objective," according to the ruling.

The Air Force can appeal, but the ruling means that the case can proceed for now.

"The DoJ is reviewing the ruling. As is our practice in all ongoing litigation, we are not going to comment on the details," said Air Force Maj. Trisha Guillebeau, a spokersperson for Hyten.

Spletstoser’s lawsuit says that in December 2017, Hyten, who was then her boss at U.S. Strategic Command, came to her hotel room while they were attending the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif. Once inside, the lawsuit states, he grabbed her and rubbed against her, ejaculating in his shorts. Spletstoser alleges that he later retaliated against her for rejecting his advances.

When Trump nominated Hyten for the job of the nation's No. 2 military officer in 2019, Spletstoser filed a complaint that prompted an Air Force investigation. The complaint was a major issue during Hyten's confirmation hearing last year, but Hyten received strong backing from senators on both sides of the aisle and was eventually confirmed.

Even Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz), a retired Air Force pilot who revealed last year that she was raped by a superior officer, came to Hyten's defense.

"The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges," McSally said. "Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case."