Last Thursday, Oct. 22, the second and final presidential debate was held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. As opposed to the first presidential debate, the final night of contention between the two candidates was markedly less tumultuous and riddled with interruptions and insults.
Prior to the debate, some changes were made to the rules, like organizers announcing they would be utilizing a mute button to discourage any major interruptions during the course of the night. Following President Trump’s refusal to partake in a virtual debate, it was ultimately canceled. For the final debate, both candidates had agreed to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to debate night.
Moderated by NBC’s Kirsten Welker, the final debate began with her calling for civility between the incumbent president and former vice president. Aiming to keep things under control throughout the night, the mute button was used a handful of times, although this time around, the candidates came into the debate prepared for a more recognizable debate format with far less chaos.
The topics up for discussion during the night focused on six major issues including the COVID-19 pandemic, American families and healthcare, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a major highlight of the debate, and discussion focused mainly on the Trump administration’s response to it thus far. Biden immediately went on the attack, stating that the president’s administration has failed to act in many areas to help Americans to survive.
“Twenty-two hundred thousand Americans dead,” Biden said. “Anybody who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of United States of America.”
In response, Trump countered with the argument that the administration is already ahead on vaccine research and that a safe vaccine will be available “very quickly.” Despite his display of confidence, regulators at the Food and Drug Administration have expressed that they are still at least a month away from even considering an emergency authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer, one of a number of pharmaceutical companies with vaccines in late-stage clinical trials, has predicted imminent readouts of its clinical trial data, but said recently that it would not apply for emergency authorization of its vaccine before the third week of November.
The president also questioned many of the solutions that experts have proposed like plexiglass dividers, mask wearing and social distancing. He cited New York as an example of leadership failure during the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it a “dying ghost town” as a result of many of the shutdowns the pandemic has forced on business owners. Biden vehemently disagreed, stating that government officials in the state should not be forced to make the choice between protecting the economy and protecting its citizens from the virus.
Later into the evening, the subject of taxes came into play. Biden came out swinging, attacking the president over his tax payments, specifically the fact that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. According to the New York Times report, he had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years, in large part because he reported losing much more money than he made.
In response to the attacks, Trump again touted his promise to release his records once his tax audit was complete. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has confirmed that individuals are free to share their own tax information, and nothing prevents a taxpayer from releasing their own tax returns, even during an audit.
A major point of contention during the night was the moment president Trump brought up Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, accusing Biden and his son of taking money from foreign governments over the years. In response, Biden argued that focusing on his son’s dealings and completely ignoring Trump’s tax corruption was backward.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life,” Biden said. “China is building a new road to a golf course you have overseas, so what’s going on? Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption.”
On the subject of healthcare, both candidates had plenty to say. Biden opened with his pitch to improve and adjust the already existing Affordable Care Act (ACA) plan, known as “Obamacare,” stating that if the Supreme Court overturned the ACA, he would work to pass and institute a new Obamacare-esque plan with a public option, renaming his plan “Bidencare.”
Trump quickly touted his distaste for the plan, likening it to socialized medicine. Trump also attacked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for standing in the way of a new COVID-19 relief bill.
“He wants socialized medicine,” Trump said, “Bernie Sanders wants it. The Democrats want it. What I would like to do is a much better health care (system) – much better – and we’ll always protect people with pre-existing (conditions).”
When the matter of immigration arose, Biden immediately went on the attack, berating Trump for his family separation policy at the Mexico-United States border. Biden highlighted a striking new report that stated that the United States government is currently struggling to care for the parents of more than 500 migrant children who are currently being held in detention centers. In response to the accusation, Trump simply responded that his administration was “working on it,” but refuted by making a claim that the cages at the border were made under the Obama administration.
According to the Detention Watch Network, the average daily population of detained immigrants has increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 50,000 in 2019. After three decades of expansion, the detention system now captures and holds as many as 500,000 immigrants each year. According to Freedom for Immigrants and federal government data from April 2019, Texas (14,481), Louisiana (4,415), Arizona (4,405), California (4,353), and Georgia (3,719), are the top five states with the largest number of people in U.S. immigration detention per day.
Moving on to the topic of race in America and criminal justice reform, the candidates accused one another of being overly harsh on crime. The president, who has campaigned on his allegiance to the police, played up his commutations and signing of a criminal justice reform law while slamming Biden for pushing the 1994 crime bill.
Biden quickly fired back, highlighting the racist and inflammatory remarks Trump has made about the Black community and other minorities, specifically bringing up Trump’s purchasing of a full-page ad in the New York Times to condemn the Central Park Five, who were falsely accused of the aggravated assault and rape of a white female jogger during a series of reported attacks in Manhattan’s Central Park on April 19, 1989.
During the conversation on race, Welker highlighted the experience that Black families have regularly, but that is almost never brought up on a national debate stage: “The Talk,” or the conversation that Black parents must have with their children telling them how to behave to survive racial profiling from police. In his response, Biden mentioned his daughter, a social worker, and the fact that he never once had to discuss those things with her, but that Black parents are forced to do so because of a justice system that is engrained with racism.
President Trump responded with his common claim that he has done more for Black people than any president in American history, “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception.” A 2017 study that assessed modern presidents based on the analysis of editorials published in Black newspapers ranked former president Lyndon B. Johnson at the top. Trump would place in the bottom third, the study’s co-author told The New York Times.
The night concluded with statements from both candidates aiming to distance themselves from each other. Biden painted his opponent as a crook and a con man, and Trump branded the challenger as a “typical politician.”
Overall, during the debate, President Trump made 123 attacks and had 24 interruptions, while Biden made 89 attacks and had 25 interruptions.
With absentee voting numbers in record highs due to the pandemic, more than 54 million Americans have already cast their ballots. With polls showing Biden leading by double digits in some states, both Trump and Biden’s teams are under even more pressure from them to highlight polls that make them look good and focus on their successes and goals for the future administration.