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Breaking Down Thursday Night's Presidential Debate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. We're going to turn now to our team of political strategists to get their take on what happened last night. We heard from Democratic political strategist Karen Finney and Republican strategist Scott Jennings yesterday ahead of the debate. And they are here again this morning. Good morning to you both.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Scott, I want to start with you. You said yesterday you thought the mute feature, the ability to mute the candidates at different intervals, could actually work in Trump's favor. You called it a medicine that would help him because it would let him make his economic argument. Did it work? Did that happen?

JENNINGS: Yeah, it's always fun being right.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNINGS: And Donald Trump last night, you know, whether it was the mute button or whether it was his own personal self-control, finally, he actually let Joe Biden talk. And I think it also let Donald Trump think about what he wanted to say next, which then caused them to actually have a choice sort of a debate over policy, which is the way Trump's always needed this election to be framed up. Now, it's late. A lot of folks have already voted or made up their minds. But finally, for one night, we actually had a debate over policy, and Donald Trump sounded pretty good.

MARTIN: So, Karen, what do you make of that? Because some Republicans or supporters of President Trump had reportedly said, you know, we just need to hear Joe Biden speak, that he'll essentially - if you give him a long enough piece of rope, that he'll hang himself, he'll make some kind of gaffe. What did you make of having the space that moved between them and the ability to let them both talk, did it work to Biden's favor?

FINNEY: Well, I think it actually worked to both of their favor. I'm willing to say that. And congratulations, Scott. I thought of you actually (laughter) when he was being so disciplined. I thought, did Scott actually talk to him? Because he really - you know, and it does matter. I mean, look, my other critique, obviously, most importantly of President Trump's performance was that a lot of what he said was still untrue. But, you know, one of the things as a communicator we know is that the tone and the style of what you say matters. And I certainly think the space between them allowed for more of a conversation. I certainly thought that Vice President Biden also had an excellent night in that, you know, he was able to be clearly talking about substance as well. I think a number of the hits from President Trump really didn't seem to land quite so well. And there were a couple of pretty cringeworthy moments, like the conversation about children who had been separated from their parents, that, despite his demeanor, I don't think worked well for Trump and I think, you know, again, gave Biden the space to actually have a comment about that instead of just, you know, the kind of behavior we saw in the first debate.

MARTIN: So I want to ask about one particular moment. The moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC, asked President Trump what he would say to Americans who have not liked how he has talked about race or seemed to exacerbate racial divides in this country. And this is how he responded. Let's play this tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump. And if you look, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln - possible exception - but the exception of Abraham Lincoln, nobody has done what I've done.

MARTIN: I mean, do Republicans believe that, Scott? It discounts the actions of several previous presidents, I mean, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, ending segregation.

JENNINGS: Yeah. I mean, I could do without the bravado and the hyperbole about Abraham Lincoln. However, if you listen, that entire exchange, Donald Trump actually does have a story to tell. When you talk about criminal justice reform and his support of the historically Black colleges and universities, the economic numbers pre-COVID, he has a story to tell. And then he pivoted and said, what did you do while you were in office for the last eight years under Obama for your 47-year career? And I actually - take out the hyperbole about Lincoln, which, by the way, has always been patently ridiculous. The story he could tell about what he did - not too bad. So aside from that, I was happy with the case he brought on that.

MARTIN: Karen?

FINNEY: Yeah, I don't - I'm willing to grant you that, Scott, but we're living - we're in a situation where one in 1,000 African Americans have died from COVID. And so where we are, our current situation is incredibly dire for Black America. And I think you can't also discount - I mean, you know, one of the problems with Donald Trump is that he will take credit for things that he's done, but then he doesn't want to take responsibility for the other part of it, which is you haven't - you won't denounce white nationalists, white supremacists. And what climate does that - I can say as a Black person, the climate that that has created feels incredibly dangerous. So I think there are - you know, the point being that there's more to the story. He certainly did an effective job telling one part of the story but then, you know, within that questioning was unwilling and unable to take responsibility. What he did with the Central Park Five is meaningful and it was horrible. And so you can't take one without the other.

MARTIN: In the moments we have remaining, I want to ask about the closing argument that each candidate made last night in response to a question from Kristen Welker about - you know, in your inaugural address, she said, what would you say to Americans who didn't vote for you? Scott, what did you think about the president's response, and then Karen? Just briefly.

JENNINGS: I think he closed up fine. I mean, obviously, you know, people who aren't voting for him, they're not likely to change their mind. I thought he closed up just fine. I mean, that's - questions like that are never going to be his strong suit. But overall, that answer, plus everything else, I thought he turned in a good performance and that was a decent capper.

MARTIN: Karen?

FINNEY: Yeah, with Vice President Biden, I thought, again, he went right to what this race has been about for him and I think for so many in the country have really come to realize that this idea of the soul of the country, the idea of having a president who is the president for everyone and trying to do healing, which really matters. And frankly, it's what people are craving at this point in the country. So it was a great performance and a great answer.

MARTIN: Karen Finney, Democratic strategist, Scott Jennings on the Republican side, thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

FINNEY: Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.