This was it: Donald Trump’s last chance to act presidential.
For nearly four years, his supporters said he would grow into the presidency and learn to behave in a way that befits the office. For four years, we have waited.
Time’s up. With the final debate Thursday night, with a little more than a week left until Election Day, Trump blew it. He didn’t blow it the way he did at the first debate a few weeks ago when he set his hair on fire by interrupting and bullying former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. On that front, Trump was on surprisingly good behavior Thursday night. If conduct alone were the measure, the bar for Trump was low, and he met it.
But there is more to acting presidential than letting your opponent speak. Not lying, for instance. Showing compassion. Demonstrating that you understand the anguish of the people you are supposed to be helping. Laying out a vision for what you would do should you have the honor of being elected.
Trump couldn’t muster a semblance of empathy for the 545 children his immigration enforcers took from their parents – mothers and fathers it now cannot locate. And he bypassed the opportunity to display sympathy for the 220,000-plus Americans who have died of Covid-19.
Instead, the president who has spent years attacking foes real and imagined continued his practice of manufacturing accusations. He tried to tar his opponent with baseless and confusing allegations concerning his family, attacks that are likely to go over well with Trump’s Fox News-watching base but will mean little to the voters he needs to convince. Once more, Trump boasted that he’s the next best thing since Abraham Lincoln for African Americans while failing to acknowledge the toll the pandemic has taken on them or to comprehend their very rational fear of the police. (He dodged a question about “the talk” Black parents routinely give their children.) As he has been doing during his massive rallies of mostly mask-less fans, the president falsely claimed that the novel coronavirus was “going away.” He continued to skirt his role in its spread. (Although he once said he took “full responsibility,” he quickly pivoted to blaming China.)
Biden, utilizing his debate prep, met the moment by swatting off Trump’s accusations as malarkey, looking into the camera as he did in the first debate to speak directly to the American people. This election is not about my family or Trump’s family, he repeated. It’s about your family. He also inserted some zingers. When Trump asserted that Americans were “learning to live with” the coronavirus, Biden retorted: “We’re learning to die with it.”
Down in national and battleground polls and facing increasing criticism within his party, Trump needed this debate much more than Biden did. Trump needed to offer a closing argument, to take advantage of his last opportunity to speak to a gargantuan audience, to give skeptics a reason to rethink their skepticism. He needed to offer something – anything – to voters who have yet to decide whom they will vote for or whether they will vote at all. He needed to sway a proportion of the voters, particularly women, who voted for him four years ago and are having second thoughts. He needed to appeal to voters outside his devoted base.
He needed to put Americans at ease, to show them that, in a second Trump term, they would be able to sleep at night. A high bar.
It is possible, likely even, that Trump’s performance moved some viewers. Voters who were open to giving him another term but turned off by his rat-a-tat-tat attacks in the first debate might reconsider.
But people looking for substance, honesty, and a show of feeling from the man presiding over a pandemic that has cost lives and livelihoods, for an indication that Trump cared about them, likely were likely unsatisfied. This was a less combative Trump than the Trump of the first debate, but he was the same Trump, nonetheless.
Biden had a lighter lift Thursday night. He primarily had to appear competent, and he did.
By keeping his wits and avoiding his famed gaffes, by showing his mastery of issues from the environment to foreign policy, the former vice president put the lie to slander from Trump and his minions that he is slowing down or – worse – suffering from dementia.
During one of the many times, he looked into the camera, Biden stated plainly: “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth.”
At the end of the debate, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC asked both candidates how they would use an inaugural address to talk to people who didn’t vote for them. Their answers were telling.
“We are on the road to success. But I’m cutting taxes, and he wants to raise everybody’s taxes, and he wants to put new regulations on everything. He will kill it,” Trump said. “If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen. Your 401(k)s will go to hell, and it’ll be a very, very sad day for this country.”
Biden, by contrast, reached out to a broad swath of voters.
“I will say, I’m an American president. I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me. And I’m going to make sure that you’re represented. I’m going to give you hope.… What is on the ballot here is the character of this country, decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years.”
Trump entered the debate needing to change the trajectory of the race. Although the polls have been unkind to him, they don’t tell the entire story. Only voters can do that. The question is which version of a president they want.