DANIEL VAUGHAN: Trump and Biden’s final debate pitches

In the final presidential debate, held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, we saw the last significant messages both candidates will give to voters. Whether debates matter to the final result is an open question. Still, it is the last massive stage each candidate has to make an impression on the American public’s minds.

And in the final debate, Trump landed multiple haymakers to Biden’s credibility on a host of issues important to swing-state voters.

Joe Biden entered the evening with a 7.9-point lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. This lead was down from his prior high point on the incumbent a few days ago, where his support was closer to 10.3 points over Trump’s.

The mission for Biden, then, was clear: Hang in tough, take the punches, but don’t take a knock-out punch, don’t trip, and don’t look weak. If you prefer a football analogy, Biden is playing a prevent defense, trying to stop any long balls from going over his head. Trump is behind in the polls and throwing everything he’s got to catch up.

From a form perspective, Biden likely succeeded in this in the debate. He didn’t have a total meltdown. But it was pretty apparent, had the debate been even 30 minutes longer, that Biden’s deficiencies would have appeared much clearer.

Biden was slurring answers, blurring sentences, and fading hard down the stretch, looking much more like the “Sleepy Joe” moniker Trump has branded Biden with over the campaign season.

In the last stretch of the debate, Trump delivered some of his hardest blows to the Biden campaign message. Trump continued to hammer Biden on his flip-flopping statements regarding fracking. At the end of the debate, Trump caught Biden in a line on moving the United States away from the oil industry entirely at a time when America is energy independent for the first time in the modern energy era.

Trump’s weakest moment of the night came during a section on racism in America, where he was asked what he’d tell Black Americans about issues of systemic racism. Most of the answers he gave were flubbed and indecipherable.

But when Biden tried to swoop in and make Trump pay during these sections, going through the long list of things he would do in a Biden–Harris administration, Trump hit back with the perennial cudgel against Biden: Why didn’t he do any of these things during the eight years of the Obama–Biden administration, or some other time during his 47 years in public office?

Biden weakly replied during the crime exchange that he never accomplished anything on this front because he had to deal with a Republican Congress. It’s a weak answer, especially since he’s running ads claiming he can work across the aisle; a response like that undercuts that notion entirely. If you’re a presidential debate stage meekly replying you couldn’t act because of the opposition, it reveals political weakness.

And the statement is not even true of the first two years of the Obama–Biden administration; Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. They could have passed anything they desired. Instead, they focused on delivering a health care plan, which got zero Republican input or support, and rammed it through Congress.

And that law has failed so spectacularly that not a single Democrat ran in 2020 on the platform of maintaining the status quo on health care. Everyone agreed a new plan was needed, including Joe Biden’s Obamacare 2.0, or “Bidencare,” as he’s calling it now.

Democrats never tried to pass any criminal justice reform during that period. They never looked at helping minority communities who they claim to want to help so much now. Given massive majorities and total control over every branch of government, Democrats ran to their unicorn list.

Biden was pressed on this point during the debate during a discussion on COVID-19 relief legislation. Biden likes touting that he’s the leader of the Democratic Party now. But when pressed on why he wasn’t putting pressure on Pelosi to get anything done on that front, Biden flubbed and demurred his way through a non-answer.

Trump, meanwhile, correctly noted that Republicans can’t pass anything because Pelosi has refused to negotiate. The GOP was at the table and ready, but Pelosi has locked up any relief plans.

The starkest difference between the two candidates was, ironically enough, over the coronavirus. And it’s important — all current trendlines on the virus look like we’re going to hold a general election in the middle of another peak of the virus in both America and Europe.

Biden’s “plan,” to the extent you can use that word, involves cherry-picking the things the Trump administration and private companies are already doing and claiming he’ll “really” do it in a Biden administration. Biden claims Trump doesn’t have a plan, yet he’s plagiarizing Trump’s points on the virus.

It’s disqualifying for any candidate not to have a plan for the worst global pandemic we’ve seen in a century. But that’s the case Biden made, which allowed Trump to acquit himself in that segment.

And that’s why Trump won the debate. Biden couldn’t and didn’t make a case. He faded in the end, and Trump capitalized nearly all night long.

Whether it all moves the polls is another matter. We’re in the last stretch. Millions of people have already voted, which is a case for moving these debates earlier in the calendar year. If you’re Trump, though, you’ll take that performance and go back to hitting the campaign trail, hoping Biden’s weaknesses came across on screen.

We’re in the home stretch, America. The final debate was the last event between us and Election Day. It was the best case both candidates have for their campaigns. And it’s your turn to decide now.