There were no surprises at the final Presidential debate, in Nashville, on Thursday night. There may be no surprises left in the campaign. The explosion the President had planned concerned the overseas business dealings of his rival’s son, Hunter Biden. But, when it was Trump’s turn to explain why Americans should vote for the President based on their view of the business arrangements of Biden’s adult son, he couldn’t seem to remember the details. Trump had invited to the debate hall a former business partner of Hunter Biden, the magnificently named Tony Bobulinski, but Bobulinski was never invoked. In the first debate, the President had called attention to Hunter Biden’s history of drug abuse, and for a moment he seemed to head down the path again. Hunter Biden left “the military service,” Trump began. Then, perhaps recalling the bad reviews this attack had gotten several weeks ago, he pulled back. “I won’t get into that.”
Had Trump . . . mellowed? At least, he seemed to be adjusting to a changed environment. In response to Trump’s interrupting performance in his first debate with Biden, the Commission on Presidential Debates decided for this one to mute each candidate’s microphone while his opponent was talking at the beginning of each segment. But mostly it was shaped by Kristen Welker, the NBC News anchor, who spoke with the rat-a-tat efficiency with which business broadcasters read off the stock reports. Especially in the debate’s first half, each time Trump began to drift into conspiratorial speculation or hyperbole, Welker was there to shepherd him back to pasture.
“I guarantee if I spent one million on you, Joe, I could find plenty wrong,” Trump said to Biden.
“All right . . . .” Welker said, the first word an eye roll, the second an arrow pointed back to the topic at hand.
The effect on Trump was not instantaneous, but it was quick.
“I have to respond to that,” the President of the United States said, holding up a hand and hunching his shoulders.
“Very quickly,” Welker said.
Even Trump seemed taken with Welker’s moderating: “I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say.” For the first time in many years, a stage on which the President appeared was not dominated by him. It belonged to Welker, which is to say, to the news.
A decisive exchange came after nearly an hour. Welker mentioned a story that broke this week: of the thousands of migrant children who were taken from their parents at the southern border, at Trump’s directive, more than five hundred still have not been reunited with their parents, many of whom were deported back to their home countries, while their kids remained. Trump argued that these children had been brought here by coyotes, or human smugglers, but Biden, once it was his turn, snapped back: “Coyotes didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them.” Biden described the situation of a child on the banks of the Rio Grande, in the company of their mom and dad. Did the child have any option but to cross? Now, without their parents, Biden said, “Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go.”
Lately, as Trump has returned to holding big rallies in small cities, the memory of the 2016 campaign has been renewed. In some ways, it seems like the part of the Presidential experience that is most real for Trump: the crowds, the last-call-at-a-beach-bar soundtrack, the emotional dial that he keeps rotating from rage to quips and back. This time, Trump’s campaign has come with a gloss of nostalgia it didn’t have four years ago: there are still more “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts than there are significant digs at Biden; the crowds are full of Trump-rally veterans who, like Deadheads, can tell you which spots they’ve hit before. This summer, the President and his allies kept insisting that the uprisings and violence in some cities were part of “Joe Biden’s America,” when, in fact, the country has been under Trump’s control for nearly four years.
Trump’s last campaign, and what he told those crowds to excite them, and what he did to try to deliver on that excitement, is now bedeviling his reëlection effort. Having insisted that the experts could not correct the nation’s course, that, as he said at the 2016 Republican Convention, “I alone can fix it,” Trump ignored the advice of doctors and health-policy officials and blithely allowed COVID-19 to spread. Having promised a “beautiful” health-care plan that would replace Obamacare, Trump could not conjure one. Having campaigned, more than anything, on getting tough on immigration, Trump has had no recourse when his family-separation policy horrified many Americans. In this debate, tellingly, it was Biden who made the emotional connection that previously was Trump’s strength, of empathy with working-class suffering. It was Biden, not Trump, who spoke about men and women who have lost a spouse to COVID-19 and who insisted that the country needs to do more to honor its essential workers. Biden said, “People are making six, seven, eight bucks an hour—these first responders we all clap for as they come down the street, because they’ve allowed us to make it. What’s happening? They deserve a minimum wage of fifteen dollars.”
Not that Biden was exceptional. By the end, it was no easier to picture a Biden Administration than it had been before. But Biden is winning handily, and if Trump has a plan to turn this race around, he gave no sign of it on Thursday night. The evening’s most significant exchanges involved Welker and Trump, not Biden, as she kept finding ways to point out that the President was still running as though he were the insurgent of 2016, not the person responsible for the country. Trump insisted that a coronavirus vaccine would be available within weeks, but under questioning from Welker he revised the date to the end of the year, and she pointed out that this was far more optimistic than what even his own health advisers had suggested. When Welker asked Trump why there has not been a second stimulus, he tried to blame the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, even though the House passed a large stimulus bill at the beginning of May.
“But you’re the President,” Welker said.