The revealing debate held in Nashville, Tennessee, last week between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden set the stage for one of the most important elections in American history on November 3.
Biden won the first presidential debate in September by far exceeding the low expectations which Trump and his campaign had set, by suggesting that Biden would be unable to stand up to Trump under the intense pressure of a live, televised debate. By holding his own despite Trump’s repeated interruptions during the earlier debate, Biden silenced some of the doubts about his fitness to serve as president, while making Trump look like a bully. Trump’s decision to go after Biden instead of taking the opportunity to present a clear agenda for his second term made him look defensive instead of presidential. It also reinforced the negative stereotypes which the mainstream media has been promoting about Trump since the day he was elected president in 2016.
Because of Trump’s disruptive behavior during the first debate, widespread expectations that he would behave similarly in last week’s second debate actually worked to his advantage. By exercising restraint and allowing Biden to speak uninterrupted during his allotted answer time, Trump was able to pounce on the former vice president’s misleading and inaccurate statements about Trump’s policies. As a result, Biden was forced to admit to several policy “mistakes” he made during his more than three decades in the US Senate and eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.
This year’s presidential debates were unusual because they virtually ignored several traditionally important national campaign issues. These include Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments, including his successful efforts to secure peace between Israel and three of its former Arab enemies, contain Iranian aggression and avoid nuclear war with North Korea. There was also little discussion of Biden’s proposal to cancel Trump’s highly successful 2017 tax cuts and raise $3 trillion by increasing taxes on businesses and the wealthy. In addition, the violent protests accompanied by a nationwide spike in gun murders and Black Lives Matter demands for defunding local police following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were virtually ignored.
Instead, Biden blamed Trump, personally, for the tragic deaths of more than 220,000 Americans so far due to Covid-19, and warned the nation to brace itself for a “dark winter” characterized by more deaths and economic shutdowns. In sharp contrast, Trump remained optimistic about defeating the virus. He sought to reassure the country that it is “rounding the corner” of the pandemic, while Biden and his fellow Democrats continue to stoke fear of the virus for their own political advantage.
Trump predicted that the widespread availability of an effective vaccine within a few months would enable the economy to recover from the coronavirus-inspired disruptions of normal life, including travel bans, the forced closure of tens of thousands of small businesses and the restrictions on large religious and social gatherings and sporting events. He also expressed confidence that the American people, like himself, as a recovered Covid-19 victim, would find a way to “live” with the virus, while Biden forecast ominously that they would continue “dying” with it.
BIDEN’S THREE BIG MISTAKES
During most of the second debate, the well-rested and prepared Biden again avoided making any gaffes that would confirm a long-suspected decline in his cognitive ability. However, the quality of his responses deteriorated noticeably as he tired during the final 20 minutes of the debate.
Biden said some things during the debate he may regret if he fails to beat Donald Trump. They include an attempt to apologize for his support of the 1994 federal crime bill, responsible for the mass incarceration of tens of thousands of young black men; his intention to do away with America’s fossil fuel industry; and his clumsy efforts to deny the growing evidence of large-scale influence peddling by members of Biden’s family.
During the second debate, Biden began by claiming he only intended to halt the practice of using fracking technology to find new domestic sources of oil and natural gas on federal land, but ended up, after Trump pressed him on the point, by confirming that a Biden presidency would spell the end of America’s oil industry and energy independence. As soon as Biden admitted, “I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” Trump pounced, declaring, “He is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma . . . Ohio?”
As soon as the debate ended, Biden tried to “clean up” his damaging remark by telling reporters he was only talking about ending federal subsidies for oil companies, and seeking to reassure his supporters in energy-producing states that, “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”
But halting fracking would put an immediate end to the growth in domestic oil and gas supplies which have led to much lower consumer prices for gasoline, electricity and home heating, while freeing the country from its long-term dependence on foreign oil. Gas prices at the pump have always been a sensitive national political issue.
FRACKING A KEY ISSUE IN PENNSYLVANIA
The fracking-driven fossil fuel industry is a major employer and engine of growth in the major presidential battleground state of Pennsylvania, contributing $45 billion a year to the state’s economy, and supporting about 339,000 direct and indirect jobs.
The key exchange over energy between the two candidates began when Trump said of Biden, “He was against fracking. . . He said it … until he got the nomination, went to Pennsylvania . . . but you know what, Pennsylvania? He’ll be against it very soon because his party is totally against it.”
Biden responded, “I said, no fracking and/or oil on federal land,” and later insisted, “I never said I oppose fracking.”
Trump quickly shot back, “You said it on tape.”
That prompted Biden to challenge the president by saying, “Show the tape, put it on your website.” He then added, “The fact of the matter is [Trump’s] flat lying.”
But Biden did put himself on the record in opposition to the continued use of fossil fuels three times during the 2020 presidential primary campaign. In the July 2019 Democrat candidate debate, CNN reporter Dana Bash asked the former vice president, “Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?”
“No,” Biden responded, “we would, we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those [or] any fossil fuel.”
During a primary campaign event on January 25, 2020, a voter asked Biden directly, “What about, say, stopping fracking?”
“Yes,” Biden said.
“And stopping new pipeline infrastructure?” the voter continued.
“Yes,” Biden said again, “new pipelines… exactly.”
Also, during the final Democrat candidate debate between Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders on March 15, Biden declared that there would be, “No more subsidies for [the] fossil fuel industry. No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period!”
When Sanders later drove home the issue, saying, “I’m talking about stopping fracking, as soon as we possibly can. I’m talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they are going to stop destroying this planet. No ifs, buts, and maybes about it …”
At which point, Biden interrupted: “So am I.”
“Well, I’m not sure your proposal does that,” Sanders responded, prompting Biden to reply, “My plan takes on the fossil fuel industry, and it unites the world. . . No more, no new fracking!”
Biden’s ill-advised debate comment threatening the future of the oil industry rattled several Democrat candidates running in down-ballot races in energy-producing states, who quickly tried to distance themselves from the remark. Congresswoman Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, facing a tight reelection race next week, said “Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree. We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”
Congressman Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico was also prompted to declare, “I disagree with VP Biden’s statement tonight. Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy.”
Biden’s subsequent attempts to backtrack on his threat to eliminate fossil fuels reinforced growing doubts among the progressive followers of Bernie Sanders and AOC about whether the former vice president will keep the promises he made to them when he clinched the Democrat nomination to put their socialist policies in place after he is elected president.
The future of the fossil fuel industry is one of several issues over which Biden has deliberately obscured his intentions from voters prior to Election Day. After weeks of refusing to answer persistent questions about whether he would support Democrat proposals to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices in response to the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Biden resorted to the classic politician’s dodge, announcing his intention to appoint a commission to study it for six months, in a thinly disguised effort to defuse it as an Election Day issue.
TRUMP CHALLENGING BIDEN’S HOLD ON BLACK VOTERS
Biden has denied claims by Trump that he used the term “super-predators” in referring to black street gangs in trying to pass his crime bill while a senator in the 1990s. Technically, Biden’s denial is correct. Hillary Clinton referred to super-predators when she was campaigning for her husband’s reelection in 1996. But in 1993, when Biden was trying to generate support for his crime bill that would pass Senate the following year, he came close to saying the same thing, referring to “predators on our streets… literally without any conscience developing.”
In 1998, Biden told an audience of state attorneys general that there were 100,000 juveniles arrested for violent crimes in the US, calling them “predators” who “warrant exceptionally, exceptionally tough treatment. . . There are 100,000 real bad apples out there, 100,000 of the kids you read about in the front page of the newspaper every day.”
In a concerted effort to make inroads into the traditional support by the overwhelming majority of black voters for Democrats, Trump has emphasized his own success in passing criminal-reform legislation in response to requests from leaders of the black community. Trump also boasts he is the first president to provide long-term funding for historically black colleges, and of his role in the creation of “enterprise zones” in minority areas, which led to record-low unemployment rates among minorities before the pandemic.
Democrats are well aware that if Trump can win over even a small portion of the traditionally Democrat black vote, it could provide him with the winning margin in the crucial battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida.
Biden responded during the debate by repeating an old charge, condemning Trump for using what the Democrat candidate called racist “dog-whistle” language “as big as a foghorn.”
FALSE ALLEGATIONS OF TRUMP RACISM
Biden frequently said he decided to run for president this year after President Trump allegedly said that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, over a statue which honored the memory of Robert E. Lee, the top commander of the Confederate army. Biden and Trump’s critics in the media claimed that Trump’s statement was an endorsement of the white supremacists responsible for the violence which resulted in the death of one of the protesters demanding the removal of the statue.
However, Trump insists his comment about “very fine people” on both sides had been deliberately taken out of context by the media to unfairly portray him as a racist. Videos of the press conference show that a few seconds after Trump uttered the widely quoted phrase, he explained, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” But mainstream media clips of Trump’s statement about the Charlottesville protests always edit out his exculpatory follow-up statement.
But Biden’s own record on race relations came under harsh criticism during the June 2019 Democrat debate by Senator Kamala Harris, now Biden’s vice presidential running mate. She criticized the former vice president for his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, his close association with and public praise for notoriously segregationist Southern Democrats during his Senate career, and for his opposition to federally-ordered busing to racially integrate public schools during the 1970s.
STRONG DEBATE RESTORES TRUMP’S LOST MOMENTUM
Beyond the substance of the debate, Trump’s credible performance enabled his campaign to regain the momentum it had lost over the previous month due to its clumsy handling of Trump’s own Covid-19 infection, followed by the negative impression created by Trump’s aggressive behavior during the first debate.
Surprisingly, despite widespread predictions by the mainstream media of doom and gloom for Trump’s reelection prospects, Biden’s lead in the national and battleground state polls increased by only a few points while the Trump campaign was struggling to regain its footing. This was another indication, along with the nationwide surge in early voting—both in person and via mail-in ballots—that the vast majority of voters already made up their mind about which candidate they prefer, leaving relatively few undecided. In that regard, Trump’s respectable performance in the second debate probably helped erase any doubts his first debate performance may have created in the minds of Trump supporters.
While a credible showing by their candidates in the second debate was important to both campaigns, the intensity of the campaign coverage in the media was already at a fever pitch, as both sides tried to motivate their voter base in the expectation of a “turnout” election whose outcome has become increasingly difficult to predict, as all indications point to a record number of votes.
The embarrassingly pro-Biden mainstream media has emphasized the former vice president’s lead in most polls. However, some Democrat strategists worry that the growing impression the media has created that a Biden landslide is likely may lead to a false sense of overconfidence hurting Democrat voter turnout on Election Day, raising the possibility that the Trump campaign could repeat his surprise 2016 victory.
Breaking with longstanding tradition, during the final weeks leading up to the election, Biden has maintained a low intensity campaign schedule, severely limiting the number of public appearances before live audiences. Biden also relied on the mainstream media to shield him from damaging new evidence suggesting large-scale influence peddling by Biden’s son, Hunter, involving Ukrainian and Chinese firms, and confirmed by one of Hunter’s former associates.
BIDEN TRIED TO DEFUSE THE INFLUENCE PEDDLING CHARGE
During the second debate, Biden broached the topic first, in an effort minimize its significance. Taking advantage of a question from the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, about the threat of foreign meddling in the November 3 election, Biden began, hesitantly, “Well, I shouldn’t,” but then said, “Well, I will. His [Trump’s] buddy Rudy Giuliani. He’s being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that is Russian, that is not true.”
Biden was referring to the fact that the former mayor of New York City, who is Trump’s personal lawyer, had previously investigated Hunter’s Biden’s inappropriate dealings with Burisma Holdings, a corrupt Ukrainian gas company, and more recently taken incriminating emails found on Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop to the New York Post. One of the emails from a Burisma executive thanked Hunter for setting up a meeting with his father on April 16, 2015, while he was vice president.
A second chain of emails on the laptop suggested that Hunter and Joe Biden’s brother, Jim, were involved in an influence peddling scheme involving the China Energy Company Ltd. (CEFC). An email dated May 13, 2017, circulated to Hunter Biden by one of his business partners, mentioned “expectations” of a deal with CEFC which would provide $850,000 to Hunter Biden, along with a 20% equity share in the joint venture.
MAKING BELIEVE IT NEVER HAPPENED
After the New York Post broke the story on October 14, the Biden campaign, at first, simply ignored it. It then claimed that the emails and the laptop were planted by the Russians as part of a disinformation campaign to disrupt the election. The laptop in question had been abandoned after being left for repair at a Wilmington, Delaware, computer shop last year, and the potentially incriminating emails on its hard drive were first reported to the authorities by the shop’s owner, John Paul Mac Isaac.
Most mainstream media outlets, as well as Facebook and Twitter, immediately accepted the Biden campaign’s explanation and suppressed the story, even though more evidence has since appeared to support its legitimacy. That includes a public statement by Tony Bobulinski, one of Hunter Biden’s former business partners, confirming the details in the email describing the deal with the CEFC.
In response to Biden campaign claims that the computer with the incriminating evidence was planted by the Russians, John Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence, and the FBI, which is now holding the Hunter Biden’s laptop, issued statements saying there is no reason to believe the allegations of Biden family influence peddling were invented by the Russians working through Giuliani to discredit Trump’s opponent and help him win the November election.
GROWING EVIDENCE OF BIDEN GUILT
Mr. Mac Isaac, Mr. Bobulinski and another former Hunter Biden business partner, Bevan Cooney, have produced thousands of documents, including corporate records, emails and text messages, describing years of business dealing by members of the Biden family trying to cash in on the former vice president’s name and political influence in deals with foreign entities in China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. One of the text messages talks about a $5 million payment from CEFC to the Biden family. Another email indicates that Hunter had demanded a $10 million dollar a year “fee” from one of his Chinese business partners.
According to Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel, the deal with CEFC fell through during the summer of 2017 when the company failed to make an expected $10 million payment to Hunter and his business partners. But according to recent report by the Senate Government Affairs Committee, headed by Republican Senator Ron Johnson, Biden family members were able to cut a separate deal with the same Chinese company which paid them a $4.7 million consulting fee.
During the debate, Trump returned to the topic, telling Biden, “They were paying you a lot of money and they probably still are.” During another exchange, he told the former vice president, “Regardless of me, I think you have to clean it up and talk to the American people. Maybe you can do it right now.”
JOE BIDEN’S UNBELIEVABLE DENIALS
Biden’s response was, “I haven’t taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” but neither he nor the Biden campaign have ever denied the authenticity of the emails found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. When Biden said that the accusations were all a “smear” and a “Russian hoax,” Trump mocked him by chanting, “Russia, Russia, Russia!” and asking Biden about a Treasury Department alert revealing that Elena Baturina, the widow of Moscow’s mayor, had paid his son Hunter $3.5 million.
Hunter Biden’s paid affiliation with Burisma while his father was vice president and in charge of Obama administration policy toward Ukraine was clearly improper. It was a source of embarrassment for State Department officials in Ukraine at the time, and has fed suspicions that Joe Biden was guilty of a conflict of interest ever since.
It was at the heart of the Democrat-instigated effort to impeach Donald Trump for raising the issue in a conversation with Ukraine’s president on July 25, 2019. Joe Biden’s public insistence at the time of innocence out of ignorance, that “I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings,” always strained credibility.
If the evidence found on Hunter Biden’s laptop is authentic, and a Burisma executive did email Hunter to thank him for an introduction to his father, then the vice president’s protestations of innocence become untenable. It also raises serious questions about Joe Biden’s poor judgement and hubris in publicly bragging that he forced the Ukrainian government to fire the state prosecutor investigating Burisma for corruption.
In his public statement last week, Mr. Bobulinski claimed that he met for an hour with Hunter’s father on May 2, 2017, during which “we discussed the Bidens’ history, the Bidens’ family business plans with the Chinese, with which he [the former vice president] was plainly familiar.” Yet despite all this evidence, the mainstream media refuse to report the basic allegations of the story.
During the second debate, Biden tried to avoid the allegations of influence peddling by trying to change the subject. After noting self-righteously that he released 22 years of his personal income tax returns, he challenged Trump to do the same. “Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption,” Biden demanded.
Unfortunately, the moderator failed to follow up by asking the former vice president to explain the evidence from Hunter’s laptop and the statement by his son’s business partner last week, suggesting that the former vice president was one of the direct but unnamed beneficiaries of the expected deal with the Chinese energy company. Welker interrupted Trump far more often than Biden during the follow-up discussion periods after each of her debate questions, but Trump had been more aggressive than Biden in trying to get in the last word throughout the debate.
Trump praised Welker for the relatively even-handed way she controlled the debate, compared to Fox News reporter Chris Wallace, who allowed the first debate to get out of hand and was much tougher in his questions to Trump than to Biden.
BIDEN BLAMES TRUMP FOR OBAMA’S CAGES
Biden also attacked Trump’s border control policies, angrily citing reports that the federal government had still not reunited more than 545 children separated from their parents while crossing the Mexican border illegally as part of the caravans of immigrants from Central America during the first years of Trump’s presidency.
“Parents were ripped—their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 of sets of those parents and those kids are alone,” Biden said. “[With] nowhere to go. Nowhere to go.”
Trump responded that federal officials were trying to reunite the children with their parents, but that some of the children had been victims of coyotes—smugglers who often use children to exploit lax asylum laws. Trump insisted that the children being held in federal custody are “well taken care of” and that pictures depicting illegal immigrant children being held in “cages” while their asylum status was assessed were actually taken during the Obama administration. To emphasize the point that it was the Obama-Biden administration that inaugurated the policy of separating children from parents at the border, Trump repeatedly asked the former vice president, “Who built the cages, Joe?”
Biden responded, “It’s not coyotes—[they] didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents, and it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
But after the debate, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh denied that federal officials were responsible for the fact that so many of the separated children have not yet been reunited with their parents. Murtaugh said that when Department of Homeland Security officials tracked down their parents in Central America, many did not want their children sent back to them in their home countries, and preferred for them to stay in the US.
Biden then pledged that during the first 100 days of his presidency, “I’m going to send to the United States Congress a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people.”
Biden ultimately admitted that the record number of deportations of illegal immigrants during the Obama administration had been a “mistake,” and sought to excuse himself by noting that he was only vice president at the time. Biden has not hesitated to claim credit for the Obama administration’s accomplishment while denying blame for its blunders. However, Biden acknowledged during the debate that its immigration policy “took too long to get it right.”
Biden also condemned Trump for ending the “catch and release” policy followed by the Obama administration, which allowed illegal aliens apprehended at the Mexican border to disappear into the general population after being handed a desk appearance ticket to return to the court to have their case for admission decided at some future date. Trump rightly pointed out that barely one percent of released illegal immigrants actually appeared for their court date.
FOCUS GROUP REVEALS TRUMP GAINS AT BIDEN’S EXPENSE
Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster, convened a group of 15 undecided voters in key battleground states to watch the second debate and provide him with their instant post-debate reactions.
Luntz asked them for a one- or two-word description of the candidates’ debate demeanor. Their response to Biden’s performance was mostly negative. They included “vague,” “very vague,” “non-specific,” “cognitively impaired,” “old,” “uncomfortable,” “elusive,” “grandfatherly,” and “defensive.”
Their instant reactions to Trump were generally more positive. The included “controlled,” “composed,” “constrained,” “reserved,” “poised,” “calmer,” “restrained.” “surprisingly presidential,” and, in contrast, “con artist.”
No member of the focus group said the debate had changed their mind about supporting either candidate. They complained that the debate left them yearning for more details about how each candidate plans to deal with the critical issues facing the country, including defeating and recovering from the coronavirus, ending racial divisions and lowering health care costs.
“I was absolutely looking for specifics,” said a woman named Jennifer. “I wanted to hear, especially from Joe Biden, information about what he actually plans to do for people … and I didn’t hear anything. All I heard was flip-flopping on the issues. I don’t know his position on fracking. I don’t know his position on oil … and that makes me uncomfortable.”
Some members of the focus group expressed mixed emotions about Trump, expressing their agreement with his policies while disapproving of his aggressive demeanor and public persona. “I have cringed in the past three-and-a-half years over President Trump’s tweets and how he has treated people,” said one woman. “The question is whether I could vote for him where I agree on many of the policies.”
TRUMP’S MORE “PRESIDENTIAL” PERFORMANCE
However, she and others in the group expressed their approval of Trump much more “presidential” performance during the second debate.
“We’ve been wanting to see this man act presidential for three years, and he hasn’t,” said another woman. “And we get a glimpse of it, and it gives us hope.” She also said that despite her unhappiness with Trump’s behavior, she trusts him more than Biden to repair the economy.
A male member of the focus group said he was impressed with Donald Trump because, “tonight, he showed restraint in comparison to the first debate. And Joe Biden can’t give a straight answer. He was so elusive.”
Trump’s presidential behavior “meant something to me,” said another woman. “That is one of the reasons I have such reservations about pulling the lever for Donald Trump. He has been embarrassing—I haven’t been embarrassed by his policies but embarrassed by what comes out of his mouth.”
“I just think that character has been the biggest thing that has held me back from voting for Donald Trump,” another woman said. “Tonight, he showed me that he can behave in a way that is more presidential—and that will affect my decision going forward.”
More members of the focus group complained about Biden’s lack of specifics because they have been watching Trump function as president for the past four years, so they know what to expect from his second term. Biden, on the other hand, has never governed during his long political career, so nobody can be certain what kind of president he would turn out to be.
While several focus group members expressed unhappiness with both of the candidates, some said the second debate had made them more likely to vote for Trump. Many seemed torn between their aversion to the president’s style and their preference for many of his policies. Luntz summed up the overall conclusion of members of the focus group as follows: “You look at Biden as being a more decent person, but he’s not coming clean on where he stands. You look at Trump, and you know where he stands, but you don’t like the way he communicates.”
AN UNSATISFYING CHOICE BETWEEN CHARACTER VS. POLICY
When asked whether they viewed this presidential election contest as a choice between character vs. policies, they generally gave Biden higher marks for moral character, while expressing greater support for Trump’s policy positions. On the other hand, some of them told Luntz they were worried that Biden would lead the country down the path to socialism.
Some focus group members also said that the recent revelations about the Biden family’s questionable foreign business dealings had influenced what they had thought would be a clear choice between character and policy.
“We talk about all these things about lying and cheating, and here’s something that’s popped up—is it true or is it not true?” said a group member named John. “I want to know. The fact that [Biden] doesn’t want to answer it scares me, and it’s one of the biggest issues I’m tracking.”
He and several other members of the panel expressed deep concern that the mainstream media and social media outlets were so blatantly trying to censor the story and keep it from the voters. “It scares me that that the media refuses to talk about it, and it gets shut down on Facebook and Twitter,” John said.
A participant named Jill agreed. She argued that while Biden has depicted the election as a “battle for the soul of the country” and is “relying on his character for votes,” the emails on his son’s laptop “would make the normal, reasonable person question his character.”
“If it were about Trump . . . the media would be all over this,” Jill added. “That is what is concerning as well.”
In addition to their criticisms of both candidates, a lopsided majority of the focus group said that being forced to choose between two such flawed candidates was alienating them from both the Democrat and Republican parties.
“Both of them have turned me off to not really like both parties,” a black focus group member named James concluded. “I really don’t have a voice in this political dialogue. … I don’t see a candidate that represents me or what I value.”