Commentary: An early debate lead for Donald J. Trump but, in the end, he couldn't help his own cause

By Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

Nelson Algren once described the great American city of Chicago as "the place built out of man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself." He could just as well have been writing about Donald J. Trump.

Just consider the trajectory of the final presidential debate on Thursday night.

Trump performed far better than his hesitant rival Joseph R. Biden for a substantial chunk of the crucial confrontation. He spoke the language of recovery, of the reopening and rebuilding of America and, in doing so, probably came as close as he could ever manage to the morning-in-America rhetoric that worked so well for Ronald Reagan. Trump appeared sharp, as personally engaging as he ever gets and, when talking about his own history with the COVID virus, he even projected a note of humility and self-improvement. "I've learned some things," he said.

Early on, the beleaguered president kept his temper in check and dropped his usual fatalist, playground-bully monotone (which always costs him votes) in favor of zestful rhetoric, moving more quickly from idea to idea than did Biden. For a man in his 70s who was pretty darn sick just a couple of weeks ago, it was an impressively fortitudinous few minutes.


Possibly a semiconscious tryout for media punditry, should the election not go so well.


Turning off the podium microphones had been mostly a reaction to the sarcastic, invasive way in which Trump made a mockery of the uninterrupted two-minute response in the first presidential debate. The decision, which hopefully will remain in perpetuity, helped two people.

One was the debate moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, who presided over by far the liveliest and least depressing of the three debates this election season, shrewdly coaxing and admonishing the two combatants. Because the core structure of the exercise was protected, Welker could allow a stimulating back and forth in the other sectors of the debate and she also had figured out that it was ineffective to tell a politician to stop talking and far more helpful to just go ahead and ask the next question. (That always confuses them enough that they at least pause.)

When you add the quality of the questions, this was a masterful and exceptionally fair-minded performance (if ever you are asked to do this, request you go last). Frankly, it served to calm everyone watching, or at least those of who believe that if our political debates cannot be effectively moderated and if the rules of engagement cannot be agreed upon, then our very democracy is at risk.

The other, of course, was Trump, a master of the pivot to whatever any given circumstances permit.


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