In muted debate, Biden and Trump spar over virus, race, and climate

Joe Biden participates in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Amr Alfiky/The New York Times)
Joe Biden participates in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. –(Amr Alfiky/The New York Times)

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden offered starkly different forecasts for the coronavirus pandemic at the outset of their final debate Thursday, with Trump insisting in defiance of evidence that the disease was “going away” while Biden warned of a “dark winter” that could see hundreds of thousands more Americans succumb.

The opening segment of the debate was markedly calmer than the chaotic melee of the first presidential debate in late September, when Trump harangued Biden and the moderator for nearly the entire evening.

The moderator Thursday, Kristen Welker of NBC News, alluded to that messy affair by reminding the candidates at the start that the point of the debate was “for the American people to hear every word.”

The first 20 minutes of the debate, often the most watched, were dominated entirely by a discussion of the virus, perhaps the biggest policy vulnerability Trump is facing.

Prompted by Welker to explain his plan for the coming months, Trump stuck to the sunny message he has delivered at recent campaign rallies, promising a vaccine in short order and citing his own recovery from a bout with the virus as an example of medical progress. The president boasted that he was now “immune” to the disease and insisted that states like Texas and Florida had seen the virus fade away, even as case counts are on the rise across the country.

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“I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do,” Trump said, without offering any specifics.

Biden, in response, pressed a focused and familiar line of attack against the president, faulting him for doing “virtually nothing” to head off the pandemic early this year and heading into the coldest part of the year with no defined plan to control the disease. Holding up a face mask, Biden said he would encourage all Americans to don them and would ramp up rapid testing on a national scale.

“We’re about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter, and he has no clear plan,” Biden said. Trump shot back: “I don’t think we’re going to have a dark winter at all — we’re opening up our country.”

But when the president said “we’re learning to live with” the coronavirus, Biden pounced. “We’re learning to die with it,” he said.

The president did, however, say for the first time, “I take full responsibility” for the impact of the virus. Then he quickly sought to skirt blame. “It’s not my fault that it came here — it’s China’s fault,” he said.

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“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said, adding, “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”

The debate Thursday, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, represented perhaps the last opportunity for Trump to shake up the presidential campaign and claw his way into closer contention against Biden with just 11 days remaining.

And the hour is even later than it appears: More than 47 million people have already cast their ballots through early and mail-in voting, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Election Project. That means the pool of votes available to either candidate is quickly shrinking as millions more are tabulated daily.

The forum, first planned as a foreign policy-centric event, took on broader parameters after Trump pulled out of what had been scheduled as the second debate this month. The candidates Thursday were expected to deal not only with matters of global affairs but also with subjects that included race and the condition of American families — a shift by organizers that drew angry objections from the Trump campaign.

The debate commission also irritated the president with a significant change prompted by his conduct: It muted the microphone of the candidate not speaking, a drastic step taken to avoid a repeat of Trump’s constant interruptions in the first debate.

Despite the broader issue agenda set for Thursday, national security figured to be a major topic, with events in just the past few days adding new urgency. On Wednesday evening, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, held an abruptly scheduled news conference in Washington to declare that Iran and Russia were seeking to inject disinformation into the U.S. election, although both men stressed that there was no indication that voting infrastructure had been tampered with.

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If the second encounter between Trump and Biden had the potential to stir new conflict in the presidential race, it was far from certain that it would reshape the battle lines of a campaign that have long been fixed in place. Trump has spent the past six months at a disadvantage, and often a large one, as voters have rejected his handling of the pandemic and many have recoiled at his personal conduct and character.

Biden entered the debate with a wide lead over Trump in national polls and ahead of him by meaningful margins in most of the battleground states. Still, there are some signs that the president has recovered at least some of the support he had lost after the first debate last month, in which he badgered and bullied Biden for an hour and a half, and his subsequent hospitalization for the coronavirus.

Some of Trump’s own closest advisers, including his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, have privately conceded to Republicans in Washington that his path to reelection is perilously slim. Some GOP leaders are hopeful that the party’s voter-registration and turnout machinery could still deliver a few closely divided states into Trump’s hands — enough to secure a close victory in the Electoral College, although almost surely not the popular vote.

But Trump’s allies also acknowledge that he must substantially strengthen his overall position in order for a muscular get-out-the-vote program to pay off.

It was not clear heading into the debate that Trump had a defined strategy for improving his political standing, other than perhaps to attack Biden in harshly personal terms in the hope of provoking him into a self-defeating response. Trump did little to prepare for Thursday’s debate, according to aides, unlike in the run-up to his first forum with Biden, when the president took part in mock debates with a group of allies, several of whom tested positive for the coronavirus soon after.

The president has savaged Biden and members of his family on the stump in recent days, focusing particularly on Biden’s son Hunter and his overseas business dealings. Wielding a combination of exaggerated and unsubstantiated allegations, and extensively citing the contested reporting of the New York Post, Trump has attempted to brand Biden as a self-dealing political insider and repeatedly called on the Justice Department to take action against the former vice president and other prominent Democrats.

But since leaving the hospital early this month, Trump has hardly delivered a disciplined case for his own reelection, and he has made no apparent headway in changing voters’ minds about his handling of the pandemic. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to pick fights with the more popular leaders of the pandemic response, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal infectious-disease expert whom Trump denounced Monday, and two Democratic governors, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, who have confronted the coronavirus far more aggressively than the president has.

Rather than admitting any fault in his own leadership or signaling a change in perspective after his bout with the virus, Trump has further embraced a strategy of hand waving and eye rolling about a disease that has claimed more than 222,000 lives in the United States.

A New York Times-Siena College poll this week found the public unconvinced by his stance. Voters nationwide preferred Biden to Trump as a leader on the pandemic by a 12-point margin, and a majority of voters said that they believed the worst effects of the coronavirus were still to come.

Trump has also spent much of the week venting anger at CBS journalist Lesley Stahl, who interviewed him for a forthcoming episode of “60 Minutes.” The president, complaining he was treated unfairly, breached an agreement with CBS by posting a video of the interview online Thursday. The 38-minute sit-down showed the president forcefully denying the extent of the coronavirus crisis and repeatedly attacking the Biden family.

Perhaps most significant, however, was Trump’s affirmation to Stahl that he hoped the Supreme Court would strike down the entire Affordable Care Act in a case scheduled to be heard shortly after the election — a possibility Democrats have put at the center of their general-election message. The president appeared to acknowledge that he still lacked a plan to replace the law but insisted without furnishing details that there were “large sections of it already done.”

“I hope that they end it,” Trump said of the ACA. “It’ll be so good if they end it.”

While Trump kept to his schedule of daily rallies, eschewing any formal debate preparations, Biden largely was in seclusion this week as he practiced for the final faceoff with the president.

He was replaced on the campaign trail by his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party’s most high-profile surrogate: former President Barack Obama. Making his return to the 2020 campaign trail, Obama appeared Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he said Trump “is incapable of taking the job seriously” and vowed that Biden would bring a measure of normalcy back to American politics.

“It just won’t be so exhausting,” he said.

In a sign, however, of the pressure Biden is under from his own party’s base to act boldly and remake institutions rather than just restore them, the former vice president attempted yet again to grapple with an issue that has vexed him over the final weeks of the campaign: expanding the Supreme Court.

After dodging the issue for several weeks, he said in an interview that he would appoint a blue-ribbon commission to consider overhauling the judiciary.

“I will ask them to over 180 days come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it’s getting out of whack,” he said in a “60 Minutes” interview that is scheduled to air in full Sunday.

Biden previously said he opposed adding justices to the Supreme Court beyond the current nine, an idea some liberals have seized upon with gusto. Yet he has often refused to adopt a stance, only explaining that he does not want to make news on the subject before the election.

His new proposal of devising a panel to study the matter — a time-honored Washington tradition that many politicians employ to stall or develop a new position on an issue — illustrates that dodging the issue has become untenable.

But for progressives hoping that Biden may become an ally on expanding the Supreme Court, his new answer amounted to an uncertain trumpet. He promised to appoint a mix of scholars from both parties and said, “The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want.”

In a sign of how determined it is to remain united and defeat Trump, though, the left has largely avoided pressing Biden on expanding the court and other issues at the top of its agenda, like climate change. Democratic lawmakers and strategists are confident about victory next month, particularly as Biden garners 50% in a number of battleground state polls and early voting soars in Democratic hubs.

But the trauma of 2016 is still fresh in the party, as Obama reminded his audience in an effort to drive turnout. “There were a whole bunch of polls last time,” he said. “Didn’t work out because a whole bunch of folks stayed at home and got lazy and complacent.”

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