Down in the polls and with almost 48 million Americans having already voted, President Donald Trump needed a strong performance in the second and final debate against former Vice President Joe Biden in Nashville on Thursday night.
Trump certainly did better in the second round than he did in the first debate in Salt Lake City at the end of last month. With tighter rules in place, including the threat of cutting the candidates’ microphones, Trump was far more restrained this time out than he was in the first debate. At the start of the debate, the candidates focused on coronavirus and Trump was able to–mostly–hold his own with Biden.
But then came national security and Trump should have listened to an old rival on his side of the aisle.
While former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s, R-Ark., 2016 presidential bid was a mere shade of his 2008 campaign, he offered a sharp assessment on what Trump needed to do on the debate stage. Appearing on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News this week, Huckabee said Trump needed to avoid going into the weeds on Hunter Biden.
“It is a mistake because the average person doesn’t understand it, it is too complicated, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter to them,” Huckabee said about Trump’s focus on Hunter Biden. “They care about their health care costs, they care about their taxes, they care about safety and their neighborhood on their block and in their yard. Focus on that and he wins the election by a landslide.”
Huckabee was onto something. If Trump is behind–and by all measures he is–he won’t be able to appeal to the dwindling pool of undecided voters by talking about Hunter Biden. Trump was smart enough to generally avoid going after Hunter Biden during the second half of the debate.
Instead of focusing on national security. Trump and Biden were launching attacks on each other, making accusations about who was being paid by other nations. Trump hit Biden over his son. Biden jabbed Trump about the recent reports of his bank accounts in China.
Biden tried to turn that around by looking at the camera. “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family and it’s hurting badly,” Biden said which Trump smacked down as a typical play from a politician.
As the debate moved on to American families and the economy, Trump tripped over an issue that has plagued the Republicans for a decade: how to replace Obamacare. Trump ripped into Biden, accusing him of backing “socialized medicine” and then going off on how the Democrat has been all over the map in Pennsylvania and even breaking his response to offer praise to moderator Kristen Welker whose star will rise after her performance on Thursday night.
Moving to fiscal issues, Biden and Trump clashed over stimulus plans stalled on Capitol Hill. Trump scored some points on Biden, hitting the Democrat for backing increasing the minimum wage on small businesses, only for Welker to call him out for recently saying he was open to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The candidates moved onto immigration, race, drugs. climate change, the environment, energy and other matters as they continued to bash each other. With tighter rules in place, including the threat of cutting the candidates’ microphones, Trump was far more restrained this time out than he was in the first debate. Trump’s performance was better on Thursday than it was in the first debate–but then so was Biden’s. Of course, the debate was far less memorable than the first one even as Biden slipped up by calling the Proud Boys the “Poor Boys” and Trump once again insisted he has done more for African-Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
As the debate neared its end, the clock began to tick even louder. Trump scored some points, especially hitting Biden for being in politics for almost half a century. But time is running out. With less than two weeks to go, Trump is trailing Biden in the money chase, making the debate one of his last chances to get out his message. Biden’s money advantage was fairly clear when Trump started complaining about his opponent being backed by Wall Street and claiming that he could raise money there if he wanted to. It was a strange moment, an odd way for Trump to close on the topic of the coronavirus pandemic.
There are estimates that more than 150 million Americans will vote this time out, up from 137 million four year ago. Almost 50 million of them have already cast their ballots. Trump did considerably better on Thursday night than he did at the end of September–but he is behind and almost 50 million votes–including more than 4.2 million in the key swing state of Florida–are already in. Trump did better on Thursday night but he needs more than this to turn this around. The president needs to go all out over the next 11 days and talk about the issues that matter to Americans during the current health and economic crises. To his credit, Trump plans to hit the road–but he needs to reach out to voters who dislike both of the candidates which means talking about solutions instead of ranting about Hunter Biden.
Kevin Derby wrote this analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.