Story by Jamie Sontany / Contributing Writer
The second and final presidential debate of this election season was held Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville.
Although this debate was markedly calmer than the first showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, both candidates still spoke and responded fiercely as they debated critical national issues such as COVID-19, national healthcare, climate change and race in America.
The debate was moderated by NBC News’ White House correspondent Kristen Welker.
For many viewers, Welker was the evening’s winner as she moderated the debate with both respect and firmness and often reminded the candidates to remain on topic and adhere to the strict time constraints.
Welker’s moderation efforts were helped by the decision of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan debate overseer, to allow the muting of candidates’ microphones during the opposing candidate’s two-minute opening response to each debate question.
The Commission’s decision was in response to the chaos that erupted during the first presidential debate at the end of September, which deteriorated into constant interruptions by both candidates.
Welker opened the debate with a question for President Trump regarding the third wave of COVID-19, citing Tennessee’s own record numbers as part of the growing concern.
When asked how he would lead the country during this next phase of the pandemic, Trump responded with his oft-repeated promise about a vaccine being ready “in just a few weeks.” He added that the military would be responsible for distributing the vaccine to Americans, referencing an unnamed general who, in Trump’s words, was on standby awaiting the vaccine:
“…we have our generals lined up, one in particular that’s the head of logistics , and this is a very easy distribution for him. He’s ready to go as soon as we have the vaccine, and we expect to have a 100 million vials. As soon as we have the vaccine, he’s ready to go.”
As for the vaccine being ready in a few weeks, fact checkers at the New York Times were unable to find any evidence of this claim.
Trump referenced his own experience with COVID-19 during his stay at Walter Reed Medical Center, and the therapeutic antivirals that were administered to him, which are not available to the average American who contracts the coronavirus. He then went on to declare that America is “learning to live with” the virus.
In response, Biden quoted current numbers of more than 220,000 people dead of COVID-19 and a growing rate of more than 70,000 new cases per day in the U.S. He then picked up his black mask, which he wore onstage when walking to his podium, and said, “If we just wore these masks, the president’s own advisors have told him, we can save a 100,000 lives. And we’re in a circumstance where the president thus far and still has no plan: no comprehensive plan.”
Biden also turned Trump’s own words around to make the first of many memorable statements from last night:
“…he says that we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it. You folks at home will have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning. That man or wife going to bed tonight and reaching over to try to touch there out of habit, where their wife or husband was, is gone. Learning to live with it. Come on.”
Pivoting to the topic of national security and the recent FBI report that Russia and Iran are working to influence this election with intimidating messages to targeted voters, Biden responded that, if he’s elected, any country that interferes in American elections will pay a price. He then added that Trump is unwilling to address this risk to American sovereignty with interfering countries.
When given the opportunity to respond, Trump accused Biden of receiving $3.5 million from the Russians, referring to a recent report from Senate Republicans that accused Biden’s family of benefiting from his vice presidency. The report is based on an alleged confidential document that hasn’t yet been identified.
In response, Biden used his time to deny any financial gain from any foreign source. He then redirected the accusation to the president’s refusal to release 22 years of tax returns, the recent revelation that he had paid a paltry $750 in taxes one year, and pointedly asked Trump what he was hiding with his refusal to release his tax records.
Regarding race in America, moderator Welker referenced what is commonly known as “the talk,” which refers to the conversation that people of color have with their children to prepare them on how to behave if stopped by the police.
Welker asked each candidate to speak directly to those families who have had the talk with their children.
Biden acknowledged that institutional racism does exist in America, and that, if elected, he has a plan to address that racism with better economic opportunity, education and healthcare.
In contrast, Trump ignored the opportunity to directly address a large bloc of American voters, and instead made a shocking statement for many viewers, insisting that, except for Abraham Lincoln, “nobody has done more for the black community than Donald Trump.”
At that point in the debate, the discussion devolved into who had commuted more sentences.
This included Trump’s condemnation of the Central Park Five in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Biden’s plan to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and Trumps accusation that Biden did nothing during his time as vice president and that he wouldn’t do anything if elected as president.
By this point, some viewers began to wonder what happened to the muted microphone rule.
However, moderator Welker forged ahead with other questions, including one about Trump’s assessment of Black Lives Matter as a “symbol of hate.” Trump stated that the first time he’d heard about Black Lives Matter, supporters of the movement were chanting “pigs in a blanket,” referring to the police as pigs. He then professed to be “the least racist person in the room.”
During his rebuttal, Biden took the opportunity to refer sarcastically to Trump as Abraham Lincoln:
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one.”
The evening’s topics shed light on the vast differences between Trump’s and Biden’s plans for critical issues in the nation. Topics included: climate change, healthcare, renewable energy and immigration.
For many, the debate’s most emotional topic was the discussion of how to reunite more than 500 children with their parents, from whom they were separated during Trump’s enforcement of his zero-tolerance policy towards illegal immigration.
While Trump declared that these displaced children had been brought to the U.S. by coyotes, drug cartels and “bad people,” he insisted that the children were being taken care of in clean facilities.
When pressed to explain his administration’s plan for finding the parents of these children, Trump said that they’re working on it.
With absentee ballots mailed and early voting well under way in many states, as of today, more than 52 million voters have already cast their votes for the next president. Last night’s debate was a final opportunity for undecided voters to make up their minds before Election Day, now merely 10 days away.
Instead, the debate may have simply served as a reminder of why many viewers have already picked their candidate, regardless if they’ve already cast their ballot.
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