In a world plagued by nescience and a drought of rationalism, logicality is as barren as a Saharan mile. Finding foliage in such a wasteland is no easy task; but alas, here you are, in what could merely be a mirage.
The final presidential debate arrived on millions of television sets across the country Thursday night. Technically the second debate, but should have been the third, the debate took place at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Kristen Welker of NBC was the lone moderator, and she was surely one of the winners on the night. She was fair, composed and direct with both candidates. President Donald Trump, who has not been shy with his criticism of moderators over the years, even thanked her mid-debate for her performance. This despite him and his campaign orchestrating an attack on her credibility in the days leading up to it.
Partially to Welker’s credit and partly to the enhanced rules for this final toe-to-toe, this debate was far closer to a boxing match than the schoolyard squabble that was the first matchup. Each candidate was able to deliver (without as much interruption) their punches, some of which landed in ways that their supporters will favor. In a more “normal” debate, viewers with made-up minds likely fell at or near where they already were. Trump sang some of his greatest hits, and Joe Biden remained within the mold he has created for himself.
But if we are to believe the polls as they currently stand, Trump is behind. He will have needed to move the needle substantially last night to cut into his deficit. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Biden is ahead by 9.8 points nationally. That has increased by 2.8 points in Biden’s favor since the first debate on Sept. 29.
Either because of this landscape or simply due to his inherent nature, Trump was on the attack much of the night. Most of his punches probably landed with his base. On the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump was quick to deflect and debase, asserting Biden would shut down the economy and ruin people’s lives. Throughout that discussion and many others that followed, he was happy to settle on the track “China,” a rival for whom the president places blame on a number of different issues. He repeated the stone-casting chorus of “Democrat governors and mayors,” which also seems to play well with his supporters. He went after Biden personally, mostly on the basis of attacking his son, Hunter, for his documented business dealings in Ukraine, China, Russia and elsewhere. Laypeople at home may have had a hard time following most of these accounts, but the president’s loyal followers know exactly what he is talking about. Trump repeated the familiar melody of the past month or so, questioning Biden why he didn’t get done many of the proposals on his presidential platform in the many decades he spent in Washington. (This is probably the best jab in the president’s arsenal.)
But outside of staunch Trump supporters — independents, undecideds and even “soft” Trump ‘16 voters — he really didn’t have anything new to say. He’s running a similar campaign as four years ago, but what worked then is not showing to be working now. This is probably because the broadsides against the former vice president and his son don’t work as well as the accusals of Hillary Clinton.
In 2016, Trump had a trove of negative play to run against Clinton, and most of it was pretty easy to wrap one’s head around. “She was subpoenaed by the FBI and deleted 33,000 emails” is explicit and comprehensible. The Hunter stuff is rather soft in comparison.
For one, Hunter is not running for president. Two, the entire premise of the theory is that he took advantage of his dad’s status as vice president to become prominent and wealthy, with “no experience,” and would have been a “loser” otherwise. But, that’s just not true. Hunter earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown and his Juris Doctorate at Yale. In the late ‘90s, he became the executive vice president of a former bank holding company, and then took a position at the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 2006, he was appointed to the board of Amtrak by President George W. Bush. His business and lobbyist dealings continued after his father became vice president and to now. Have any of these practices bordered on unethical? Perhaps, but in the weeds. But there has never been an established connection between what Hunter does and what Joe does, despite numerous attempts.
Further (and this gets at the president’s constant contradictions, like in the last debate), attacking Hunter for presumably capitalizing on and/or unethically making money while his parent holds office is not an argument Trump can make without also indicting himself. Biden has abstained from counterpunching about the president’s family thus far, but there is plenty of ammunition — much more than with Hunter. Like China fast-tracking multimillion-dollar patents for Ivanka Trump after her father became president, while she was working in the White House; Don Jr. and Eric Trump, who are both at the helm of the family business while the patriarch serves as U.S. President, have negotiated more than $100 million of real estate during his term to this point, despite the president promising “no new deals” while he is in office to avoid talks of conflicts and the need for a blind trust; and Jared Kushner and his family, while he serves in the White House, negotiated a “miraculous” $1 billion real estate deal on a property the family was previously underwater on for years with no way out, right before the family owed a more than $1 billion sum on the property. And, when the president was acknowledged for his recently reported Chinese bank account, his refute was, “I do business in China, like millions of other people.” Like Hunter, then? The list goes on, and the point becomes even more clear.
But instead of dirtying up his hands in this mess that, let’s face it, most people don’t really care about, the Democratic candidate served up one of the best lines of the night:
“It’s not about his family or my family, it’s about your family.”
That’s the appeal to undecided or leaning voters that Trump needed to make. There was a time when it was bad politics to attack an opponent’s family, but sadly, those days are well behind us. This is especially troubling considering the vicious attacks on Hunter (last month, the president made fun of his substance use issues at the debate and the next day Don Jr. called him “crackhead Hunter”) come as he is only Joe’s second remaining child. His daughter Naomi was killed in a car crash, along with his first wife, in 1972. His other son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.
It’s this lack of decorum and empathy that is omnipresent with this president. Another example last night was when talking about the reported 545 children at the southern border who remain separated from their parents, because this administration cannot locate them. Instead of displaying humility, vowing unequivocally they would do everything to ensure these children do not become orphans, Trump said that the children were “so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that are so clean.” He also pivoted heavily to the argument of, “I didn’t build the cages.”
It’s vile. It’s reprehensible. One often finds the desire to be objective and try to “both sides” their way through the news these days, especially in the context of writing about it. But this is objectively awful. Those poor, poor children have done nothing wrong, and yet they are alone for who knows how long. And no, President Obama and Biden did not do the same. There’s a false equivalence floating around to deflect from these misdeeds; that since Obama built the cages everything cancels out. This administration’s policy, on the record, was to separate children from their parents as a deterrent for other asylum seekers from the south. The previous administration did not do that. Although there were “cages” and warehouses that served as temporary housing for immigrants until the government could displace them, families were not purposefully separated as punishment and as a disincentive until 2018, as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Digressing, the former vice president had a better debate than in September, but it’s probably fair to say that neither of these candidates are going to win any awards for their capabilities in such a forum. Biden was playing defense for much of the night, but he performed adequately in that role. Facing the allegations of foreign monies influencing him, Biden retorted that he’s released the past 22 years of his tax returns, while the president has released zero. On the novel coronavirus, Biden refuted Trump’s assertions that he’d shut everything down with a couple of prepared sound bytes that we don’t need to shut the country down, we need to shut the virus down, followed by arguments that there are ways to reopen the country safely that are not being done now.
And, perhaps most consequentially, as the president criticized Democratic governors and mayors, and stated that the pandemic relief package passed through the House in the summer was not good because it “bailed out” Democratic cities and states, Biden identified a lot of light between the two for the millions of people at home.
“I’m going to be an American president. I don’t see red states and blue states. What I see is American — United States.”
To Welker’s credit, the last question the moderator delivered was the best of the evening. The question, as well as both of the candidate’s answers, is below.
Q: This is about leadership, gentlemen, and this first question does go to you, President Trump. Imagine this is your Inauguration Day. What will you say in your address to Americans who did not vote for you? You’ll each have one minute, starting with you.
T: We have to make our country totally successful, as it was prior to the plague coming in from China. Now we’re rebuilding it and we’re doing record numbers, 11.4 million jobs in a short period of time, etc. But, I will tell you, go back before the plague came in, just before, I was getting calls from people that were not normally people that would call me. They wanted to get together. We had the best Black unemployment numbers in the history of our country, Hispanic, women, Asian, people with diplomas, with no diplomas, MIT graduates, number one in the class — everybody had the best numbers. And you know what? The other side wanted to get together. They wanted to unify. Success is going to bring us together. 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. If he gets in, you will have a depression, the likes of which you’ve never seen. Your 401Ks will go to hell and it’ll be a very, very sad day for this country.
B: I will say, ‘I’m the 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. We’re going to move. We’re going to choose science over fiction. We’re going to choose hope over fear. We’re going to choose to move forward because we have enormous opportunities, enormous opportunities to make things better. We can grow this economy. We can deal with systemic racism. At the same time, we can make sure that our economy is being run, and moved, and motivated by clean energy, creating millions of new jobs. And that’s the fact; that’s what we’re going to do. And I’m going to say, as I said at the beginning, 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. Now, I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” -George Orwell
The Spiritual Blessing of Political Homelessness (The Dispatch)
By David French
“On the liberating power of a political declaration of independence.”
Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts? (The Atlantic)
By Arthur C. Brooks
“As society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.”
By Jonah Goldberg
“Panicky voters are motivated voters.”
By Jen Kirby and Rani Molla
“More than 51 million people have already voted early in 2020, surpassing 2016’s overall early vote total.”
Deserts for Trees is a recurring editorial segment from Arkansas Money & Politics contributing editor and AY About You editor, Dustin Jayroe.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Arkansas Money & Politics or About You Media Group.