What to Look For in the Final Debate Besides Confirmation That Time Is Still Moving Forward

Close-up of a chair leg resting on a square of black tape next to a vertical strip of white tape on a red carpet.
Precise social distance markings delineate the placement of Melania Trump’s chair at the Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the site of Thursday night’s debate. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Oh, God, here we go again (at 9 p.m. from Nashville, moderated by NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker)!

Here’s what Slate’s elite politics staff (actually just me—no one will send me ideas on Slack because I always respond “Thanks for the insight! NOT”) will be looking for:

1. Taxes! As I noted Wednesday, Donald Trump has for the most part not even attempted to hit Joe Biden with the kind of “big taxes, big government” messaging that Republicans typically aim at center-lane Democrats, fixating instead on the ineffective accusation that the former VP is a puppet for socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In recent days, however, Trump’s Twitter account has been telegraphing plans to make a more conventional “pocketbook” argument during the campaign’s closing stretch:

Will Biden have a good response ready? And will Trump even remember to actually say this stuff at the debate? Or …

2. Is the president’s brain in an even more upsetting state than usual? For all the time that the presidential Twitter account has spent this week on ahistorical claims about what 401(k)s do under Democratic presidents, it has spent much more time pursuing a one-sided feud with 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl because she was, purportedly, rude and unfair to him during a taping of an interview that will air Sunday night. We’re talking here about a 74-year-old who very recently was hospitalized with an extremely taxing disease that was treated with heavy doses of steroids known to cause mood swings. He’s also an egomaniac who is sustained by the idea of his own success but is confronting the possibility, which is being taken increasingly seriously even by loyalists within his own party, that he is going to lose the election, by a lot. It’s possible that he’ll be more unhinged this time than he was during the first debate! Speaking of which …

3. Who, if anyone, will benefit from the new mute button? The Commission on Presidential Debates responded to Trump’s repeated interruptions of Biden during their Sept. 29 faceoff by announcing that each candidate will get to do a two-minute initial response to each moderator question with their opponent’s microphone turned completely off. This will deprive Trump of what he believed, sincerely if not accurately, was a smart strategy to show “dominance”; there has, however, been some punditry suggesting that maybe this will actually hurt Biden, by exposing him to more prolonged scrutiny and preventing him from being the sympathetic foil to a rude, red-faced president like he was last time. Your correspondent believes this concern is overblown; while Biden is not as good at generating compelling TV moments as your Pete Buttigiegs and your Elizabeth Warrens, he has managed to do six months of live interviews as the presumptive and then official Democratic nominee without falling on his face and, in many cases, has actually performed well. But …

4. Will Biden get upset if Trump goes even harder at his son? One of the moments most often cited to explain the polling hit Trump took after the first debate was his more or less random interjection about Biden’s son Hunter having left the military because of drug addiction, to which Biden responded by professing unconditional, fatherly love. Since that point, the Trump campaign has been trying to make Hunter even more of a campaign issue via dubiously sourced articles in the New York Post about emails that allegedly document Biden family corruption, led by Hunter, in China and Ukraine. None of this has taken hold with voters, and Franklin Foer theorizes in the Atlantic that its primary purpose may be to goad Biden into a having a flustered meltdown on Thursday night. As Foer asserts, it’s a long shot, and if it backfires on Trump again, it may go down as the stupidest presidential campaign strategy in history. Speaking of which …

5. Will humans continue to perceive time as a line upon which one can only move forward, such that the end of the debate means we will have traveled 90 minutes closer to the point at which Donald Trump might not be a daily national news topic?

Hope so!


6. Will anyone bring up the report that Trump is trying to give away extremely valuable rights to 5G spectrum space to a company whose investors include top MAGA donor Peter Thiel, or the report that he is trying to give himself the authority to fire civil servants for political reasons? Probably not; there is such an incomprehensible amount of bad stuff spewing out of the White House every day—if you could see it, it would look like when the storage facility gets shut down in Ghostbusters—that it’s hard to fit everything in. Scandals that might make a normal president squirm in a normal debate are lost in the overall swirl of malfeasance. Still, it should probably concern us that the president seems to be preparing for the possibility of a loss (or worse, a second term) by making it easier to use the government for the purposes of ethnic-nationalist self-enrichment. If only there were one more debate to fit it all in! No, just kidding.