The final debate

Analysis by David Leonhardt, NY Times, Oct 23, 2020

Last night’s presidential debate felt much more normal than this year’s first one. The candidates interrupted each other only occasionally rather than constantly. They argued about big policy issues like the coronavirus, foreign policy and more.

But the debate wasn’t normal by the standards of nearly all of American history. It wasn’t normal because one of the nominees — the sitting president — told one lie after another. He did so about the virus, North Korea, China, Russia, climate change, his own health care policy, Joe Biden’s health care policy, Biden’s finances and the immigrant children who were separated from their parents.

I understand you may be tired of hearing about President Trump’s untruths. I’m tired of writing about them. They hardly qualify as surprising anymore.

But it’s impossible to analyze a debate filled with untruths without first acknowledging them. They undermine an event meant to highlight differences between candidates. They undermine democracy. To ignore them is to miss the biggest story: a president trying to construct his own reality.

How are voters supposed to choose between, say, two different health care plans if one candidate makes up stories about both plans?

No previous president has behaved this way. Democrats often accused George W. Bush of lying, and Republicans accused Barack Obama of lying. And both men made questionable statements and statements that later proved untrue. But when they proved untrue, Bush and Obama stopped making the claims. Trump just keeps making them.

Debate analysis

“From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate … an absolute avalanche of lying” — CNN’s Daniel Dale, who’s been probably the most committed Trump fact checker.

“Biden was again imperfect from a fact check perspective. He made at least a few false, misleading, or lacking-in-context claims. Trump was, as usual, a serial liar.” — Dale. (A Times fact check of both candidates is here.)

“Trump was far more disciplined. He landed a few sharp attacks, even as he diverted into some issues that seem more like fodder for the conservative media-sphere.” — The Times’s Lisa Lerer.

“The subjects Trump most wishes to discuss are ones largely disconnected from those that matter most to voters.” — Jane Coaston, Vox.

“This debate probably isn’t going to hurt Senate Republican candidates in a way the first debate did.” — Jessica Taylor, Cook Political Report.

The moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, won praise as the best, most commanding moderator of this debate season (and she had the advantage of the candidates being muted for stretches while the other was speaking).

Two post-debate polls both found Biden to be the winner, by 54 percent to 35 percent in CNN’s and 53 percent to 39 percent in YouGov’s.

Key lines

“I take full responsibility, but China brought it here. It’s not my fault,” — Trump, on the virus.

“People are learning to die with it.” — Biden, after Trump said the country was learning to live with the virus.

“Why didn’t you do it [while vice president?] You had eight years with Obama. You know why, Joe? Because you’re all talk and no action,” Trump, on Biden’s criminal-justice plans.

“It’s not about his family or my family. It’s about your family.” — Biden, after an exchange of personal accusations.

“I would transition away from the oil industry, yes … The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” — Biden.