‘I generally avoid temptation,’ said actress Mae West, ‘unless I can’t resist it.’
My mind turned to this wonderful quote numerous times during last night’s second and final presidential debate as I watched Donald Trump’s face.
Time and again, I could tell he was itching to take the gloves off and start ranting abusively and personally at his opponent Joe Biden, as he had done in the first debate.
But to my astonishment, instead of succumbing to his basest instincts, Trump pursed his lips, screwed up his cheeks, grimaced, scowled and, for the most part, avoided temptation.
Instead of the ranting, deluded, narcissistic buffoon we got last time, this was a far calmer, measured, focused, well-prepared, non-scary and even empathetic performance by the president.
Time and again, I could tell Donald Trump was itching to take the gloves off and start ranting abusively and personally at his opponent Joe Biden, as he had done in the first debate. Trump is pictured at the final presidential debate on Thursday
We saw a new, tamer Trump and I liked it as much as I was surprised by it.
So did others.
Top political pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a live-streamed response to the debate with undecided voters from swing states, tweeted afterwards: ‘My focus group’s words to describe Trump tonight: “Controlled”, “Reserved”, “Poised”, “Con artist”, “Surprisingly presidential.”
The same group, he added, used the words “Vague”, “Unspecific”, “Elusive”, “Defensive” and “Grandfatherly” to describe Biden’s performance.
But it was a specific exchange between Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher and the group about ‘character’ that really caught my eye.
Luntz, a Republican, tweeted: ‘They say Joe Biden is a more decent person, but they side more with Trump’s policies and how they affect their daily lives.’
There, right there, is the real issue.
If this election is purely about who’s a nicer guy, Biden’s a clear undeniable winner.
If this election is purely about who’s a nicer guy, Biden’s a clear undeniable winner. Biden is pictured at the debate
As my wife said while we watched the debate: ‘There’s just something very likeable about him.’
That’s true, there is.
But right now, I’m not sure most Americans really care about having a nice president, they just want someone to get them out of this hellish mess.
I thought Biden had a good debate, certainly by his standards.
He was almost gaffe-free, didn’t stumble too much, and was at his best when he displayed genuine anger and passion over America’s appalling coronavirus death toll, and the devastation it has caused to so many families. Biden’s own experience with personal tragedy gives him a deep and very authentic empathy valve that can’t be manufactured. He knows what it means to suffer real loss and it showed.
He’s also a long-time public servant with 50 years of political experience who is presenting himself as the antidote to Trump’s controversy-driven presidency, the ‘healer’ to cure America’s current state of chaos.
In that regard, Biden didn’t let himself down.
It was a solid performance.
But nor did he say anything refreshingly new that screamed ‘VOTE FOR ME!’
His was more a 90-minute message of ‘DON’T VOTE FOR TRUMP!’
I thought Biden had a good debate, certainly by his standards. It was a solid performance. But nor did he say anything refreshingly new that screamed ‘VOTE FOR ME!’ His was more a 90-minute message of ‘DON’T VOTE FOR TRUMP!’ Pictured are both candidates on stage at the debate
The president may be a polarizing, inflammatory man with barely any experience of public service. But he skilfully exploited that apparent weakness as a strength – repeatedly berating Biden for not doing the things he’s now promising to do on issues like healthcare and immigration during his eight years as vice president
And that message – which is very similar to Hillary Clinton’s failed strategy in 2016 – barely reached the decibel level worthy of capital letters.
It’s not Biden’s fault, given he’s nearly 80, but he has half the energy, dynamism and vision of Barack Obama and that’s a problem when compared to Trump who, love him or hate him, always bursts with charismatic vitality.
The president may be a polarizing, inflammatory man with barely any experience of public service.
But he skilfully exploited that apparent weakness as a strength – repeatedly berating Biden for not doing the things he’s now promising to do on issues like healthcare and immigration during his eight years as vice president.
‘You keep talking about all these things you’re going to do,’ Trump sneered. ‘Why didn’t you get it done? All talk and no action, just like a politician.’
It’s a good point, so much so that at one stage rattled Biden even chucked Obama under the bus over why he hadn’t done more to tackle immigration, exclaiming: ‘It took too long to get it right, I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president.’
This debate, unlike the last unedifying fiasco, was a proper debate, superbly moderated by NBC’s outstanding Kristen Welker who was so fair, firm and authoritative that Trump even paid tribute to her, saying: ‘I respect very much the way you’re handling this.’
We got to hear what the two candidates really think about a number of crucial issues, and Trump was far more effective by keeping his infamous temper fused.
Even on coronavirus, he managed to divert the debate away from his abject failures by blaming it all on China and billing himself as the only man who can revive the broken economy as well as he drove it before the pandemic.
I’ve been as critical as anyone about the president’s woeful handling of the crisis.
Top political pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a live-streamed response (pictured) to the debate with undecided voters from swing states, tweeted afterwards: ‘My focus group’s words to describe Trump tonight: “Controlled”, “Reserved”, “Poised”, “Con artist”, “Surprisingly presidential.”
But there’s no doubt that the longer it goes on, the more desperate many Americans will become to have their livelihoods saved as much as lives.
And that’s why Trump’s assertion that America has to ‘learn to live with it’ with regard to Covid-19 and that too much draconian lockdown – which Biden supports as a key weapon to control the virus – may ensure ‘the cure will be worse than the problem itself’ will have resonated with many viewers.
They might prefer Biden’s character, and believe he will do a better job in safeguarding them from the deadly virus – as he retorted to Trump, ‘We’re learning to live with it? People are learning to die with it!’ – but I suspect more of them would back Trump to restore their jobs than the Democrat challenger.
And Trump hurled just enough mud about the ongoing scandal of his son Hunter’s dodgy dealings with foreign businesses in the Ukraine, Russia and China, to chip away at the Biden halo.
The challenger’s inference that it was a non-story driven by Russian disinformation propaganda rang hollow, and he still has important questions to answer about the New York Post’s explosive revelations about Hunter’s laptop and emails.
He also handed a campaign gift to Republicans by saying he’d ‘transition from the oil industry’ into renewable energy.
‘I generally avoid temptation,’ said actress Mae West, ‘unless I can’t resist it.’ She is pictured on the set of 1933 movie She Done Him Wrong
As Trump swiftly responded: ‘He’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?’
So overall, I thought the president conducted himself as well as he’s done in any previous debate.
For once, he seemed to heed the advice from his advisors to tone down the toxic rhetoric.
But his pivot to a more ‘presidential’ style last night begs the question: why on earth didn’t he do this earlier in a year when America has been left reeling from the pandemic and the George Floyd killing?
It may be too late for Trump to save his presidency.
The polls certainly point to him losing on November 3, possibly very badly.
But the polls were all wrong in 2016 and could be wildly out of kilter again such is the unpredictability of Trump’s silent support.
He has ten days to turn things around, which in his world is a long time.
And his performance last night has given him an unexpected new springboard to salvage a shock victory from the jaws of apparently inevitable defeat.
Donald Trump won last night’s debate.
Not by beating Joe Biden… but by beating himself.
And in doing so, he may just have blown this race back open again.