US presidential debate: who won, was it any good, were there any surprises?

Six Irish Times journalists and commentators assess the Trump-Biden face-off in Nashville

SUZANNE LYNCH, Washington Correspondent:

Was it a good debate?

Given the low bar set by the first debate on September 29th, which descended into chaos and name-calling, this was an improvement in terms of both substance and style.

Trump’s tone was more restrained, even polite at times, as he refrained from interrupting his opponent.

"I respect very much the way you're handling this," Trump told moderator Kristen Welker at one point, no doubt mindful of the all-important female vote in this election, having lashed out at two female reporters, Samantha Guthrie and Lesley Stahl, who interviewed him over the past week.


But behind the calmer demeanour, Trump still displayed the characteristics that have seen him through the last four years. He threw mud at Joe Biden, accusing him of being corrupt and making "millions" from China and Ukraine. Biden tried to refute the allegations, but his repeated refrain of "not true, not true" as he shook his head struggled to make an impact.

Trump repeatedly told untruths, claiming that Biden supported “socialised medicine” and wanted to ban “fracking” (neither is true.)

“We have done an incredible job environmentally,” he declared during the discussion of climate change, ignoring his roll-back of Obama-era environmental regulations and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords

As was the case in the first debate, Biden quoted some of the best one-liners of the night, but did not deliver them well. “Learning to live with it? Come on. We’re dying with it,” he said as Trump tried to put a positive gloss on the coronavirus pandemic. “I want to shut down the virus, not the country,” he said at another point. But the punch-lines fell flat.

On substantive policy points, Trump was weakest on immigration, such as his equivocal answer to reports that more than 500 children have not been reunited with the families having been separated at the border.

Similarly, his explanation for not releasing his tax returns was rambling and evasive.

Any surprises?

Trump’s demeanour. He exhibited a discipline we don’t usually see from the president, even though his attitude was sullen throughout.

Key moment?

Biden’s response when Trump declared he was “the least racist person in the room”. The former vice-president shot back: “He pours fuel in every single racist fire, every single one. He started off his campaign coming down the escalator saying he was going to get rid of those Mexican rapists. He banned Muslims because they are Muslims . . . This guy is a dog whistle as big as a fog horn.”

Who won and why?

Biden in that he avoided any pitfalls or missteps that could have thrown his campaign off-kilter in the final run-in to election day, despite coming under pressure from Trump over his support for the 1994 crime bill. Biden passed the competence bar, and also succeeded in steering the debate back to the over-riding message he wanted to convey – that he would lead for all Americans if elected.

SIMON CARSWELL, Irish Times journalist:

Was it a good debate?

Yes. The final debate of this presidential campaign, less than two weeks before polling day, was far more civilised than the shout-fest that was the first encounter between these two septuagenarians last month. The difference was night and day. This managed to feel like a normal presidential debate and, unusually, Trump appeared like a normal candidate, at times.

The main reason was Trump was on better behaviour and, uncharacteristically, less aggressive. Shockingly, he was actually polite on occasion and managed to compliment the debate moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, a first for Trump. He even appeared to listen. He was clearly following the advice of his campaign team not to interrupt and to let Joe Biden talk and trip himself up. Unfortunately for Trump, Biden never lost his footing. He was assured and confident.

Any surprises?

Not many. Biden's aggression stood out. The Democratic former vice-president out-trumped Trump on what the US president has turned into a strength as an anti-politician figure during previous debates. Biden swatted the US president's smear lines very effectively with simple "wrong"s and "not true"s. He responded smartly to Trump's attempts to play to his supporters with baseless attacks over the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden, accusing Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, of being played as an agent of disinformation, "being used as a Russian pawn, fed information that is not true". Biden came out swinging – and, notably, wearing a face mask at the beginning, in contrast to Trump – and kept swinging throughout.

Key moment?

Coronavirus dominated the debate and Biden landed punches on the topic, but the key moment was Biden condemning the Trump White House’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border, one of the most egregious acts of his four-year administration. Biden pointed to recent reports that the parents of 545 children separated at the Mexican border have still not been found. “Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal,” said a fuming Biden. A frowning Trump could only respond by saying that the detained children are being “so well taken care of” and “in facilities that are so clean” and asking Biden: “Who built the cages?” It was as close to a knockout punch as this debate got.

Who won, and why?

Biden, by a country mile. He scored most by coming across as presidential, pitted against a man whose performance confirmed how far out of his depth he is. The veteran Democrat came across as someone who could be the grown-up in the White House, who understands the complex challenges the country faces at a time when the United States must tackle its biggest crisis, the coronavirus pandemic.

“Americans don’t panic; he panics,” said Biden, summing up the US president’s approach to fighting the virus, in one of his zingers on the night.

Biden tried to present himself as a unifier at a time of great division, riffing on the tried and trusted Obama line: “I don’t see red states and blue states. What I see is American, United States.”

He spoke about decency, honour and respect, and treating people with dignity, in a strong finish about what he would say to people who did not vote for him in his inauguration speech if elected. In the Trump era, it felt like an unusual return to a traditional presidential race with the flourishing rhetoric that once characterised US presidential campaigns. It stood out.

Trump relied on well-peddled lies, personalised smears on Biden and attack lines from his campaign stump speech in a strategy that rankled during a debate that allowed policy positions to be aired, at least from Biden. This was Trump playing to his supporters on the right with klaxon-sounding lines – “the laptop from hell” – that will appeal to his low-information supporters who are fed a diet of misinformation by Fox News or Breitbart.

The muted mic was the second big winner of the night, permitting a mostly reasonable debate that exposed Trump and allowed Biden to shine.

Will it all matter? Probably not. The US president spoke only to his base and there are few undecideds left in this campaign after almost four years of Donald Trump in the White House.

FINN McREDMOND, journalist and Irish Times commentator:

Was it a good debate?

Insofar as it was actually a debate – yes.

No one’s hopes were high as we came into this evening – clouded by our impressions from two weeks ago, where the pair spoke over each other and barely a coherent sentence was uttered between the two of them.

Donald Trump took a different tack this time round. Rather than repeatedly interrupt Biden he allowed him to speak; possibly in the hopes that Biden would stumble over his words and reveal aspects of his policy platform that might not sit well with on-the-fence voters.

The moderator, Kristen Welker, shone throughout. And her last question – on what each candidate would say to those who did not vote for them on their inauguration day – gave way to some of the most revealing statements of the entire campaign so far.

Any surprises?

It is perhaps not the most exciting takeaway, but the relative civility of the evening was as refreshing as it was unexpected.

Biden was marginally more combative than last time, and Trump marginally less bellicose. But as the evening went on the mantle began to slip, and Trump’s interruptions became more frequent and less coherent.

But the most surprising line of all came when Trump turned to the moderator and said:

“I respect very much the way you’re handling this, by the way.”

After nearly four years of a Trump presidency, his adoption of a softer and (relatively speaking) more courteous tone was remarkable.

Key moment?

Joe Biden’s most impressive moment was right at the beginning. As the pair tussled over Covid-19, and the Trump administration’s track record on handling the virus, Biden landed a serious blow:

“220,000 Americans dead… anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”

It is an easy – and obvious – attack line for Biden. But it was no less effective for that. And Trump (unsurprisingly) floundered in his response.

If there were to be another key moment, however, it was in an exchange that Trump undoubtedly won. As the pair argued over environmental policy, with fracking raised as a major issue, Biden made a critical error when he was cornered into stating that he would transition away from the oil industry, and look to alternative and greener sources of energy.

Tell that to voters in Texas, Trump riposted.

Who won, and why?

With many postal votes already cast, and Trump still significantly behind in the polls, it would be hard to claim that this debate will have any substantive impact on the outcome of the race.

With that in mind, Trump needed a decisive victory over Biden. While the president was undoubtedly more coherent than last time, striking a much less combative tone, he failed to land any knock-out blows. If we accept that, Trump almost loses by default.

But Trump had one very successful attack line that Biden failed to counter in any meaningful way. As Biden criticised many aspects of Trump’s track record in the White House, Trump was smart to consistently refer to Biden’s long tenure in Washington – “47 years” – and his alleged failure to solve any of the issues on race and immigration he used to criticise the president.

It was reminiscent of Trump’s infamous “drain the swamp” routine from 2016. But while that may have been effective four years ago, Trump can no longer meaningfully claim he’s a Washington outsider.

Meanwhile, Biden was at his best when he connected emotionally with viewers and turned the debate away from policy and towards personality. Speaking directly down the camera lens he said: “You know his character and you know my character… Character is on the ballot. Look at us closely.” That line may well stick.

DAVID McKECHNIE, deputy foreign editor:

Was it a good debate?

It surpassed expectations after the brutal first instalment, and hearing candidates talk about policy had a nice old-fashioned appeal. The mute button, or at least the threat of it, proved effective and moderator Kristen Welker kept control. The debate was worthy, in a slightly unflattering sense – lacking excitement or moments of great quality, and was largely played out on Biden’s terms. The former vice-president droned on comfortably about his plans, underlining his experience, his Serious Man credentials, and also appearing as someone whose faculties are intact. His regular eyes-to-heaven schtick at the president’s claims was an effective party piece and his passion grew as the evening wore on. Trump’s politeness was more bearable and – in the loosest sense – presidential, but contrasted so much with his display in the first debate that it appeared performative and insincere.

Any surprises?

Trump emerged quite well from the coronavirus section, which was played out along the lines we have become accustomed to globally – one side focused on the health implications, the other on the harm to business of shutting down. The president’s lament for New York’s nightlife was quietly effective, and his optimism about a vaccine surely struck a chord with many seeking solace at a difficult time. In contrast, Biden’s emphasis on the “dark winter” was hardly likely to get Democratic voters marching to the polling stations. Another surprise was that Trump’s wild-card subject – Hunter Biden, and alleged corruption in the Biden family – ended up turning out better for the former VP, who pivoted it nicely to Trump’s China links and his tax return failings. The president returned to the topic regularly, with woolly claims like “they’re calling you a corrupt politician” smacking of desperation.

Key moment?

Trump calling himself “the least racist person in this room” was funny in one sense (he followed up by peering into the distance with his hand over his eyes. “I don’t even know who’s in the audience, it’s very dark in here…”), but also revealing – a moment of such bluster it was a sharp reminder that this is a guy who can’t be trusted, who makes it up as he goes along. It also came shortly after his cruel comment about only immigrants with the “lowest IQ” returning for their immigration hearings. Trump largely kept himself in check, but when his better angels got distracted the unpleasantness that puts off middle-ground voters was revealed.

Who won, and why?

Both candidates did fine but it was a bigger success for Biden. He was lucid, other than a couple of slips of the tongue (his pronunciation of “Giuliani” will require repeat hearings) and perhaps most importantly he sounded like a policy egghead with a lot of experience. That is really the last thing Trump needed.

DAMIAN CULLEN, Irish Times journalist:

Was it a good debate?

In comparison to the first debate, it was a huge improvement. In fact, it was on a different planet.

Maybe the microphones being muted during the two-minute speeches made a difference, but, in truth, the follow-up questions and answers sessions were much more civil – with both candidates allowing their opponent to talk largely uninterrupted.

Finally, it seems Trump listened to his senior advisers – such as Kellyanne Conway – who had urged him, even before the first debate, that the best strategy was to allow Joe Biden to talk. Many Republicans believe, for good reason, that Biden is a poor public speaker – often losing his train of thought, stumbling over figures and tying himself up in knots. To be fair, while the former vice-president did mess up some rehearsed lines – as he always does – Biden was obviously well-prepared for the second debate.

And so it was the viewers who benefited from Trump’s revised strategy.

Any surprises?

If you believe the polls – both national ones and several in battleground states – the former vice-president just needs to run down the clock. So, the popular view before the debate was that Biden would be happy with a 0-0 draw – and look to keep the debate low-key. In fact, Biden went on the attack from the start of the debate, forcing Trump on to the defensive immediately.

And he had some of the best lines of the night – “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.” “It’s not about his family, or my family, it’s about your family.” Former president Barack Obama must have laughed when he heard the former VP mention “Bidencare”. And he definitely would have heard the line about “not seeing red states or blue states, but the United States” before.

Trump did land some punches on Biden – for example on crime and on the former vice-president’s long career of “inaction” – and perhaps some viewers were surprised by Biden struggling to answer some of the questions.

Key moment?

The highest viewer figures for debates such as these are always in the opening minutes. Many people tune in, watch for a while and then flick over to their favourite late-night TV show. The topic segments were supposed to be 15 minutes, but moderator Kristen Welker, rightly, allowed the issue of the coronavirus pandemic to dominate the opening half-hour – and so the key moment of the night was early on, and spanned almost one-third of the debate.

Again, a rosy picture of the coronavirus pandemic was painted by Trump. “More and more people are getting better,” he told Americans. “I’ve been congratulated by heads of many countries.”

Biden was strong out of the traps attacking that idea, and the problem for Trump is that with 1,000 people losing their lives in America every day due to Covid-19, it’s tough to sell “we’ve rounded the turn, we’ve rounded the corner”.

Biden put the responsibility squarely with Trump and promised, “I will take care of this. I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”

The Biden campaign has wanted this entire election to be a referendum on Trump. Last night’s debate felt like that – with Trump having to defend his words and actions for long periods.

Who won, and why?

The American people won, because it was a decent debate – with both candidates putting forward at least some of their policy plans. If you were an undecided American voter who tuned into the debate, you would have no excuse this morning for still not knowing which way to cast your vote.

But how many of them could their possibly be?

If Biden won the first debate it was because of Trump’s antics, not because the former vice-president was particularly impressive. In the second debate, he was better, but so was Trump. The Biden camp will be happier, because no clear winner meant he won.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that NBC moderator Welker did a great job.

CHRIS DOOLEY, foreign editor:

Was it a good debate?

Incredibly, yes. Was this really the same pair who served up 90 minutes of disorder and confusion in Cleveland three weeks ago? Credit is due to the presidential debates commission. Its new policy of cutting off microphones during the opening two minutes allotted to the protagonists at the start of each section was not just successful in its own right – it probably set the tone for the exchanges that followed. It was lively, it was dynamic, but the candidates did not talk over each other – they let each other speak.

Any surprises?

The first surprise was that it was a good debate. The second, for me, was that Donald Trump held his own in the first segment, on the coronavirus. Considering his abysmal record in dealing with the pandemic, that was quite a feat. And it was surprising that Trump maintained his discipline throughout.

Key moment?

I’m not sure the debate had a pivotal moment or a turning point, but most of the big lines were from Biden. His best for me came during the debate on the minimum wage. Trump was making the case that an increase would force companies to lay off workers. Biden’s passionate response was unanswerable: “People are making six, seven, eight bucks an hour. These first responders we all clapped for as they come down the street – because they’ve allowed us to make it. What’s happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15. Anything below that puts you below the poverty level.”

Who won, and why?

Both candidates raised their game, but a better-prepared Trump succeeded only in bringing the best out of Biden. Trump may have reassured some moderate Republicans that he is not the ogre he appeared to be during the first debate in Cleveland, but his opponent demolished the “Sleepy Joe” line of attack adopted by the US president in the campaign to date. He was fiery, passionate and showed a grasp of detail that some might have doubted he possessed. He also successfully portrayed himself as a unifier, versus Trump the divider. After the president had engaged in one of his routine attacks on Democratic mayors, Biden responded: “I don’t look at this in terms that he does, blue states and red states. It’s all the United States.” Biden won.