Well, that was different – and better.
Muted microphones and an altered strategy by the candidates turned down the heat for Thursdays’ second and final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. The mood was diametrically different, especially at the start, from the unruly rumble that passed for their first debate on Sept. 29.
Was it good TV? Yes: It was more subdued but not boring, because the design was to inform, not necessarily entertain. It certainly wasn’t as annoying as the first encounter. It wasn’t as dramatic, either, but when it comes to helping voters decide on the country’s course, that’s a good thing.
Muting helped foster a muted tone, a much better result for voters seeking to judge the candidates, but not if you were looking for WWE-style theatrics. The mic modification was instituted and controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates – not the moderator, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker – after the widely panned first meeting. And it offered a solution to that unsettling, uninformative cacophony.
Much credit for delivering substance goes to Welker, who was polite but firm and had the wherewithal to ask relevant follow-up questions in a high-pressure situation. She won kudos from her media counterparts.
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The discussion of critical policy matters was welcome, although it wasn’t hard to clear the bar established at the previous debate. Trump, the source of most interruptions during the first debate, may have been listening to advisers who told him to cut back on that behavior.
Under the muting plan, each candidate received two minutes uninterrupted to answer Welker’s first question in each category and both candidates mostly complied. During one of Trump’s answers, the muted Biden could be seen, but not heard, saying, “Not true.” At one point, Trump continued speaking, unheard, as Biden began his two minutes.
However, a less disruptive discussion wasn’t always more enlightening, as Trump – who has a history of falsehoods – and Biden often disagreed on basic facts, likely leaving many viewers wondering what the truth really is and making substantial work for fact-checkers.
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Despite the more controlled behavior, there was some emotional drama, notably in the candidates’ answers regarding the 500-plus immigrant children who were separated from their parents, who now cannot be found.
Biden grew angry as he talked about them “being ripped from their (parents’) arms and separated.” Trump, who started taunting Biden about “cages” from the Obama Administration, said the children were “well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
As in the first debate, the first question focused on COVID-19, which has hung over the campaign and the country for most of 2020.
Trump did not interrupt as much as he did in the POTUS Interruptus encounter, He at times followed Welker’s instructions much more than he did when Fox News host Chris Wallace tried to rein him in and control the first debate. He even complimented Welker, after criticizing her as unfair in the days leading up to the debate.
When Trump went long on the topic of North Korea, Welker said, “President Trump, that’s 30 seconds. Thank you.” Trump pointed – but stopped. However, he couldn’t always maintain that restraint.
With less disruption, non-verbal behavior signaled each candidate’s frustration with the other’s answer. Biden was more likely to laugh, while Trump, appearing to anger more easily as time went on, often grimaced and shook his head, with rapid hand movements punctuating his eventual responses.
The former vice president also had an odd moment late in the debate when he took a long look at his wristwatch, leading to comparisons to a devastating moment for President Bush in a 1992 debate that preceded his loss to Bill Clinton.
Would the two have been able to constrain themselves if it had gone on much longer? We’ll never know, but fortunately everyone involved seemed to obey one longstanding rule of television, usually involving entertainment: Always leave them wanting more.
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