Critic's Notebook: Biden Holds Steady, Trump Tones It Down in Final Presidential Debate

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In Final Debate
Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

NBC News' Kristen Welker oversaw a somewhat more substantive, somewhat more sedate debate — and avoided becoming a Chris Wallace-esque punchline.

Well, at this point, we've started evaluating President Donald Trump's debate performances the same way we might judge a grizzly bear's violin solo: dispensing with technical critique and demands for nuance, and rather just nodding in relief that the violin survived the concert uneaten.

Don't believe me? Ask CNN's Jake Tapper, whose instant reaction to the debate was an effusive, "President Trump behaved more like a normal person would...have... theoretically."

Tapper continued with the sort of fact that even CNN's detail-obsessed Daniel Dale couldn't dispute. "He didn't set himself on fire tonight," Tapper said. I'm prepared to give that statement ZERO Pinocchios.

And I guess the choice undecided voters will have to make over the next 10 days is whether that is the high standard that the United States sets for its president.

To be completely fair and equal, since I am the Fox News of TV criticism: Joe Biden also behaved very much like a normal person — some might say even moreso — and also didn't set himself on fire, some might say to exactly an equal degree.

One of Trump's most recent favorite stump speech mantras has been that if we elect Biden president, politics will suddenly become boring, and I guess that some generous observers of this debate will interpret it as a preview of that somewhat more boring political future. Why? Because two 70-something white men stood on a stage in Tennessee and neither set themselves on fire.

Mazel tovs all around.

The most truthful, non-sarcastic, congratulations of the night probably should go to NBC News' Kristen Welker, who surely owes Chris Wallace an edible arrangement of some sort. Because even though anybody who watched the last 40 minutes primarily saw cross-talk, interruption and question evasion with none of the "muting" promised by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the first 50 minutes were, indeed, pretty clean. I would say Welker was a good (not spectacular) moderator, but since Wallace was — sorry, sir — the low bar against whom all future debate moderators will be measured, she looked like a model of decorum and order.

Welker stopped Trump when he tried to interrupt and several times when he started to be digressive. She attempted to be rigorous with Biden's requests for follow-up response time. And she even asked tough questions of both men, whether it was anything requiring Trump to speak in complete sentences and articulate plans for anything or pushing Biden to clarify his position on the 1994 Crime Bill and whether he did or didn't say he opposes fracking.

Biden didn't give a straight answer on the Crime Bill part of the question, though he did admit that various drug laws passed in the '80s were a mistake. He didn't exactly give a truthful answer about his wobbling stance on fracking either, though he tried to clarify certain aspects.

Still, Biden came far closer to sticking to the factual record than Trump; Daniel Dale, tweeting up a fact-checking storm, called Biden out on a couple of points, but was almost non-stop noting Trump's now-familiar fabrications. Welker, for her part, was unable or unwilling to fact check either man. Like Susan Page in the Vice Presidential Debate — in which Mike Pence may not have given a direct answer to a single question — Welker simply lacked the time or desire to tell either candidate, "Yeah, but that wasn't the question I asked." It wouldn't have made any difference with Trump.

The former Apprentice host came out with his talking points much more in-hand than he did at the first debate, in which Wallace let him play bull-in-a-china-shop for 90 minutes. He criticized Biden over and over again for his alleged lack of accomplishments in the eight years he was vice president. The sitting president of the United States, a man who has now been president for approaching four years, repeatedly accused Biden of being a politician.

Fact Check: The President of the United States is a politician as well.

One thing that either will or won't come back to haunt Trump is that he was unquestionably instructed not to say the name "Hunter Biden" during this debate. There will be members of the chattering class who blame Welker for not directly asking questions about problematically sourced information regarding the former vice president's son. And maybe Trump was waiting for somebody else to say "Hunter Biden" first, but somebody on his team must have coached him that "Hunter Biden" slurs don't play. That meant that Trump was forced to obliquely hint at the quasi-scandals that have surrounded Hunter Biden's alleged laptop and the documents that were allegedly retrieved from that laptop, trying to lay things at Joe Biden's feet without being able to address them directly.

The debate was nearly over before Trump made his first reference to a "laptop," and even that came off as flailing desperation. After an hour of being the closest to "under control" he could possibly be, he began ranting about laptops and tiny windows and wind machines killing birds. Multiple times, he declared himself "the least racist person in this room," the sort of pronouncement that you had to love if you were Melania Trump, Tiffany Trump, Kristen Welker (a woman of color) or Joe Biden. Heck, even Kid Rock must have been up in the gallery going, "Wait. I just accepted your invitation to sit six feet away from John Daly. I didn't come here to be called racist."

Trump was low-energy in the first half of the debate and much more excitable in the second, but when he was low-energy he was closer to coherent. Did any of that have anything to do with Welker and her moderation? Unclear. Biden was consistent and to me, his moments of irritation were when he came across best.

The former vice president, of course, had his own talking points and he executed them so fluidly that Trump accused him of being a politician when Biden tried making direct addresses to families at home. It's telling how the narrative has changed, since two months ago (or a week ago), Trump and the Fox News gadflies were talking about Biden's dementia and his reduced capacity and how he might not be able to debate at all — and now the most potent accusation Trump could muster was that Biden was too darned polished and too darned political.

Biden had a slew of zingers prepared and his memory was good enough to tick them off one after another, whether it was "People are learning to die with it" regarding COVID-19 or "He's a very confused guy. He thinks he's running against somebody else" after several consecutive Bernie Sanders references. Biden got in one "Malarkey!" and at least a half-dozen "Come on!" protestations, so he was playing the hits as well.

Though for all of Biden's preparedness, when Trump made the questionable promise "I know more about wind than you do," Biden didn't have "You certainly know more about hot air." Come on, indeed!

There was more civility this time, but let's not pretend there was much more civility. Trump indirectly accused Biden of corruption several times without any supporting facts. Biden directly accused Trump of xenophobia — and since Trump explicitly (and absurdly inaccurately) said that the only immigrants who reported to their court dates under catch-and-release were stupid (and completely avoided saying anything resembling what he would do to reunite 540+ separated parents with their children), "xenophobia" is a shockingly fair baseline. Trump did a lot of eye-rolling and shaking his head. Biden did a lot of smiling incredulously.

I'll let the pundits bicker over whether Trump or Biden won this debate. I think Biden won handily, because I don't think he did anything to lose. But that hardly matters because this is an exercise for a small and confusing cadre of undecided voters who also probably think there's no difference between Coke and Pepsi — and there sure as hell is a difference between Coke and Pepsi.

After the first debate, I said we were all the losers for sitting through an experience that made us stupider. Tonight, we're all winners: We never have to do this again.

Now go out and vote, people.