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Second presidential debate was less horrifying, but also less interesting, than the first

Donald Trump still couldn’t stop himself from interrupting, but he did it a lot less. Biden’s assignment was to do nothing to shake up the race, and he may have succeeded.

Former Vice President Joe Biden answers a question as President Donald Trump listens
Former Vice President Joe Biden answers a question as President Donald Trump listens during the second and final presidential debate at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday evening.
Morry Gash/Pool via REUTERS

The 2020 presidential debates are over, thank the Lord. Last night’s 90-minute “exchange of views” was somewhat less horrifying, but also less interesting, than the first. The best one may have been the middle one, the one that was canceled.

If you watched it, good for you, although I suspect your 90 minutes could have been put to better use. Me, it’s my job and all that, but I learned nothing and will keep this short. You can thank me later.

Herewith a very few observations:

Donald Trump still couldn’t stop himself from interrupting, but he did it a lot less, perhaps because a mute button had been installed on his microphone, perhaps because some of his handlers had convinced him that the previous my-time-is-my-time-your-time-is-my-time orangutan routine was not working for him except among the orangutan demographic.

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Anyone who came hoping to learn anything about the candidates’ records and their stances on the issues would have been better off on Google (or the search engine of your choice).

Trump lied a fair bit, but perhaps less than usual, and slung a lot of ugly mud at Biden and his family members. At this point, I find it hard to imagine anyone who will decide to vote for Trump because he is convinced that the Biden family is corrupt. But who am I to question the marketing genius of Donald Trump? He thinks he can get your vote because he’s the honest one, and his kids have had to work hard to get ahead, unlike the silver-spoon-fed Biden boys.

Biden seemed old and a bit frail, but still compos mentis. His assignment, since he’s well ahead in the polls, was to do nothing to shake up the race, and he may have succeeded.

I was struck that no one even bothered to ask Trump the biggest question hanging over the race, namely: If you lose, will you leave? But perhaps that’s because he has already established his (truly scary) four-word answer: “We’ll have to see.”

The first topic, unfortunately for Trump, was COVID-19. Biden’s best line of the night was (according to my shorthand notes, with apologies if it’s off by a word) “220,000 Americans are dead. Anyone responsible for that should not be president.”

Trump, as he has before, claimed to have handled the pandemic extremely well. He promised a vaccine by the end of the year. He blamed China for the virus.

Biden reminded us all that Trump had originally praised China for its handling of the virus. He noted that, while Trump was telling the country everything was under control, Trump’s wealthy friends “sold short” on Wall Street.

Trump said that “nobody’s tougher than me on Russia” and accused Biden of taking some kind of shady $3.5 million from Russia. No such allegation even exists, at least involving Joe, but Senate Republicans have alleged that Biden’s son Hunter may have received Russian money for something.

Trump acted offended when, after Trump suggested that no president since Abe Lincoln has done as much for African-Americans as he has, Biden said:

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“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” mocking Trump for the Lincoln reference. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire. Every single one.”

So you don’t have to, I watched a few minutes of the post-debate reaction on CNN and Fox.

CNN’s Jake Tapper said that Biden, while not shining, committed no serious blunders, which was the main goal, since he’s ahead and “I don’t see anything that will change the trajectory” of the race coming out of the debate.

Dana Bash said that “Trump listened to his advisers this time,” which I took to mean that he came much closer to abiding by the rules, like obeying the time limits for his turns to speak and interrupting less (I say less, but Trump interrupted a lot, or tried to. He just can’t help himself.)

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the Republican member of the CNN panel, said Trump was “on his game” and “scored.”

Van Jones tried to split the difference, saying Trump “did his best, but his best wasn’t good enough. … [Trump] sounded better and looked better” than in the first debate, but the difference wasn’t nearly enough “and he lies a lot.”

On Fox, Brit Hume said something similar, a bit more kindly (toward Trump), saying Trump did OK, but not enough to change the shape of the race, in which Biden has led for quite a while. His exact prediction was “a stand-pat debate.”

Even Democratic strategist Donna Brazille, who lends her perspective on Fox, conceded that “this was not Twitter Donald Trump,” but preached “the character of the country is on the ballot. Our character is on the ballot.”

I would like to believe that anyone who lied and demagogued as much as Trump has (and did last night, although he toned it down a bit) would end up in disgrace like Sen. Joseph McCarthy. That may yet happen, but McCarthy never became president. Maybe that’s because McCarthy worked against Russia, and Russia works for Trump.