The general mood of the final presidential debate was relative restraint. The final mix-tapes of Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s diss tracks featured mostly recycled beats: Hunter Biden, Putin, fracking and, most importantly, the confused and confused response to the Coronavirus. Despite the presence of Kid Rock in the audience, the mood was low-key, almost drowsy on occasion.
Since it is Donald Trump, there have obviously been attempts to hijack subjects and violent digressions. But really, it was relatively docile – and therefore the clear winner, by unanimous decision, was moderator Kristen Welker, who bravely led a reasonable facsimile of a presidential debate and succeeded in preventing Trump from constantly interrupting, as he had done in the first competition.
Biden ominously alluded to our coming ‘dark winter’ and explained how ordinary people (he dove into many kitchen table metaphors) are dying as Trump tweets as Rome burns down . Trump’s haymaking attempts likely made more sense to engaged Fox News viewers. Trump hinted that Joe Biden had a “thing” about hiding in his basement, which was kind of funny. Biden was once again forced to heed the legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill. And when the subject of racial tensions in America was brought up, the always sensitive Trump assured us that he had done more to the African-American community than any president, with the possible except, yes, Abraham Lincoln.
So, yes, the content was similar to that of the first debate, except that Kristen Welker took care of the arduous task of moving the whole thing forward with assured aplomb. How the hell did she do it? How did Welker avoid another wild and vaguely savage affair? There are a few simple reasons.
The placebo effect of the microphone
The first presidential debate was such an absolute disaster that the Presidential Debates Committee had to take concrete action to ensure that the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and leader of the Free World would shut up every now and then. They opted for a fairly innocuous solution: each candidate was entitled to an uninterrupted period of two minutes to answer questions at the beginning of each segment. After that, the mics would be on for both contestants, potentially opening the door to wild rebuttals and melodramatic interjections.
Unfortunately for Twitter’s hopes, it was never going to be a question of muting someone (you know who!) In the middle of a crazy sentence. However! Something about the knowledge that rules were put in place specifically to limit the excesses of the last debate, or the anticipation of a possible mute, however limited, could have generated a more flexible atmosphere.
The reverse interrupt
Chris Wallace was thrown like a rag doll by Trump in the first debate. Biden also took advantage of the loose structure: halfway through the debate, he was literally begging for a little respect. Welker had a different strategy than Wallace about being allowed to do her job: she wasn’t afraid of the reverse interrupt, which is a fancy way of saying she wasn’t afraid of tell candidates to stop it and move on.
In this typical moment, Trump is spending too much time denouncing Biden as a Wall Street tool while bragging about how much money he could get from financiers if he wasn’t too ethical to do so. Wallace might have allowed this to continue indefinitely, but Welker just told them very firmly that they were moving forward. And Trump moved on.
Here, as Trump tries to make the case for the “Biden crime family” again, Welker tries to pivot to China. Trump is on his hind legs and has some momentum, the kind that gives him strength, and he’s clearly not ready to give up the moment. There is crosstalk. Trump talks a bit about Welker, until she asks him forcefully but calmly (luckily talking about him is his favorite subject!)