BOSTON (CBS) – Who won the final debate between President Trump and Joe Biden?
Pardon the cliché, but democracy – the notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it – was a winner. Both men were obviously aware of the backlash against their mosh-pit first debate and were reluctant to interrupt, allowing moderator Kristen Welker to actually moderate and the people at home to hear what they had to say.
Trump came on strong early and dominated the early portion of the debate, as a noticeably passive Biden was reduced to a lot of sarcastic smiling and headshaking. And there were moments where it seemed the avowed Trump campaign strategy of letting Biden talk more was working, as the former vice president stumbled at times.
Unfortunately for Trump, the early topic was the pandemic, where Trump’s emphatic arguments about the damage done by shutdowns were neutralized by Biden’s rejoinders to presidential bragging about supposed success protecting the public. “This is the same fella who told you it’d be over by Easter,” said Biden.
And as the debate wore on it was Trump who began talking too much, repeating himself and tossing word salad. There were exchanges where Biden effectively played rope-a-dope, keeping his answers short and leaving a vacuum Trump couldn’t resist filling.
The president’s lack of discipline led him to steer a discussion of foreign interference in the election into a rehash of his old complaints about the Mueller probe, a topic few if any voters had likely thought about in months. Trump squandered time and momentum by diving deep into his obsession with fever-swamp conspiracy theories about Biden’s son Hunter and the former vice president’s role in Ukrainian affairs, a theme the president has been flogging for more than a year with no apparent impact on the public’s view of Biden.
And the incumbent’s insistence on chewing that bone setup Biden for his best line of the night: “It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family.”
For the fervent Trump base, the debate was surely a bravura classic hits concert, climaxing with the president’s replay of his throwback rhetoric on illegal immigration bringing “rapists and murderers” into the country. But the polls and the outcome of the 2018 midterms show how that stuff has proven to be poison to key voter groups like suburban women whom Trump must do better with. It was yet another moment when Trump seemed intent on replaying his 2016 run, even pretending at one point he wasn’t the incumbent by saying “it’s all talk and no action with these politicians.”
In the end, there was nothing new here, no disqualifying blunder by Biden, no new wrinkles from Trump.
That’s good news for the frontrunner, and bad news for the lagging Trump campaign.