Hard-fought debate may ultimately not matter

October 29, 2020 — by Michael Wong

President Donald Trump and Democratic-nominee Joe Biden sparred in Thursday’s debate in an odd election cycle that has seen unprecedented turnout and polarized campaigns.

The final presidential debate concluded Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., with both candidates largely maintaining the same campaign message as they head into the final stretch of an election where 52 million have already voted, including 25 million from battleground states.

For the most part, this debate was tempered down compared to the theatrics of the first. Former Vice President Joe Biden emphasized unity, saying he is running as a “proud Democrat … [who] will be an American president.” Trump, on the other hand, questioned Biden’s ability to serve as the president and implement policies, critiquing Biden’s 47 years of public service as a “poor” performance.

Major reports in the weeks leading up to this debate alleged further problems regarding Trump’s tax returns. Leaked tax records that claimed the president only paid $750 in 2016 and 2017 also revealed he paid thousands of dollars in taxes to China due to business ventures, as well as having previously undisclosed bank accounts there worth tens of millions. While Trump claimed he prepaid millions of taxes and that the reported losses were minute compared to his overall wealth, the strong reporting of The New York Times has repeatedly refuted such claims.

Trump sidestepped allegations of questionable tax practices by furthering corruption claims regarding Biden’s involvement in his son's position on the board of Burisma, an energy company in Ukraine. Biden has unequivocally denied accusations of any knowledge or involvement, and his son has said in previous interviews that it was “poor judgment” but nothing improper.

Another recent topic was the news of 545 migrant children whose parents could not be located. Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” in 2018, which expanded on family separation to deter illegal immigration, was short-lived after being widely criticized of its inhumane treatment. But poor documentation and no intentions to reunite families from the beginning slowed efforts to rectify the mistake.

Biden criticized the administration’s handling of immigration issues and promised to protect Dreamers; Trump, meanwhile, touted his success in curbing illegal immigration and pointed out that some of these policies, such as the “cages,” began during Biden’s term as vice president.

Trump, however, managed to drive a wedge between Biden and liberal Democrats again. During the first debate, Biden claimed that he did not support the Green New Deal, contrary to what is stated on his campaign website. 

On the topic of health care during this debate, Biden was forced to defend himself from characterization as a figurehead for the party, saying that did not support the proposals offered by senators such as Bernie Sanders. In addition, Trump accused Biden of wanting to eliminate fracking and the oil industries, a statement that Biden claimed misrepresented his actual position and proposals to address climate change, a big issue in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Otherwise, most of the 90 minutes revolved around long-repeated points. Biden continued his emphasis on the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic and presented a dire prediction for the winter ahead; Trump offered unfounded hope for a vaccine in the coming weeks and emphasized his actions on shutting down travel to China and the effectiveness of existing treatments. Trump attacked Biden’s record on race with the 1994 crime bill, and boasted his own accomplishments with criminal justice, prison reforms and “Opportunity Zones.” 

Compared to the two previous moderators and two reporters for the town halls, Kristen Welker of NBC moderated well, pressing questions and maintaining a civil discourse. While she had the benefit of the debate commission’s rule change to mute microphones, she rarely used this tool.

In an election where only 8 percent of voters remain undecided, the debate may ultimately have little impact on the outcome of the election. Indeed, the initial polling of the debate’s winner closely reflected current national polling of the general election. With most national polls giving Biden close to a 10-point lead, Trump must secure all swing states and win both Florida and Pennsylvania (both of which have Biden ahead on most polls) to have a realistic shot at securing a second term.

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