<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Shockingly, the second and last presidential debate, which was held in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday night, actually contained some discussion of policy. This was not thanks to President Trump, who spent much of the evening dissembling, spreading disinformation and attempting to lend credence to a suspicious story circulating in the rightwing media about a laptop that supposedly once belonged to Joe Biden’s son.

Instead, the substantive moments of the night were almost all secured by the efforts of NBC’s Kristen Welker, the only one of the debate moderators this cycle who was able to handle the president with the calm authoritativeness and unyielding confidence that is required. She did what the previous debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, could not do: she kept the candidates as close to the designated topic as possible, she maintained her dignity throughout, and she handled the president’s outbursts with the demeanor of sedate decisiveness that experts recommend when handling ill-behaved dogs.

Related: The final Biden-Trump presidential debate: our panelists’ verdict

As a result of Welker’s temperament and acuity, the debate contained fewer of Trump’s interruptions and outbursts, and at times almost approached a substantial, if not exactly serious, discussion of the policy differences between the two candidates. This may have also been the result of a visible effort by Trump to contain his temper and avoid the tantrums of the last debate, a chaotic circus of chicanery and contempt that left voters repulsed by Trump and caused his already poor poll numbers to nosedive. At times early in the debate, Trump seemed to be attempting to restrain himself with almost a physical effort, gritting his teeth as he recited memorized sentences drafted by a communications staffer.

Maybe Trump’s performance of attempted restraint was meant to convince the thin and dwindling slice of persuadable voters – estimated at roughly 5%, according to NPR – to vote for him, instead of the challenger. But amid Trump’s viscerally polarizing presidency, that group of undecided voters seems marginal at best, probably too small to meaningfully influence the outcome in most states. Rather, Trump’s comparatively sedate performance in the first 20 or so minutes of the debate seemed aimed at people who voted for him in 2016 – particularly white suburban women – who have since been disappointed, even humiliated, by his presidency.

By attempting to appear calmer, more cogent, Trump was trying to reassure these voters who might not vote this year, or might even be voting Democratic, that he’s not so embarrassing after all. The complete sentences, uttered without those flying drops of involuntary spittle from the president’s mouth that characterized so much of the last debate, seemed designed to give these voters permission to come back to Trump, to vote Republican again, and to convince themselves that a Republican vote is compatible with their own dignity and decency.

Will it work? That probably depends on how long people kept watching. Trump’s coherence seemed practiced and difficult for him, and not long into the debate, he dropped the act and returned to his usual rambling and petulant self.

He made frequent references to obscure conspiracy theories born of the far-right internet, references that were illegible to most viewers and designed more as signals to his already devoted base. He made bizarre claims about the Covid-19 pandemic, boasting that his response was successful because not as many people died as probably could have, and blaming his own infection on his meetings with the families of American soldiers who have been killed overseas. He mocked Biden for the former vice-president’s concern for the welfare of ordinary families. He claimed that he had done more for Black Americans than anyone except maybe Abraham Lincoln, and asserted that he was “the least racist person in the room” – the sort of claim that seems dubious by the mere fact of its having been made. He chillingly described children who his administration kidnapped at the southern border as having been “very well taken care of”. News reports showed these children in cages, and have recently revealed that the federal government cannot locate the parents of more than 500 of them. Trump claimed that Joe Biden, under the direction of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would dismantle buildings in order to rebuild them with smaller windows.

For his part, Biden handled Trump’s attacks with relative aplomb. Policy discussions are not his strong suit: Biden ran on a famously non-specific agenda during the primaries, and has focused his general election campaign more on appeals to Americans’ moral sensibilities than to their policy preferences. But he scored some meaningful points by insisting on tying his climate plan to jobs growth, and levelled attacks on Trump and the Republican party by decrying their inaction on a much-needed economic relief package and pointing out, correctly, that Trump’s Ahab-like focus on the performance of the stock market ignores the real economic conditions of ordinary Americans.

If you want him to enact his aims, the subtext went, you have to vote out the Republicans down ballot, too

Careful observers would have noticed that Biden stumbled once or twice, repeating lines he had already used in the last debate – his image of an empty chair at the dinner table in homes that have lost a family member to Covid, his insistence that the election is “Not about his family or my family, but about your family.” But Biden did not have to be very good in the debate – he merely had to be better than Trump, and that much he achieved with ease. Trump, meanwhile, is certain to be hailed as having made a pivot in a softer, gentler direction by pundits impressed that he managed some moments of lucidity on the debate stage, but this will be an exaggeration. Expectations were so low for the president after his performance in the first debate than anything more dignified than an on-camera fart would have been hailed as presidential and sophisticated.

But Biden did manage to make one point late in the evening when he copped, disarmingly to the reality of the Obama administration’s limitation. Throughout the night, Trump ceaselessly attacked Biden for his supposed inaction and ineffectiveness while vice-president – “It’s all talk and no action with these politicians,” the sitting president said. But Biden explained this with refreshing candor: they didn’t achieve all of their agenda, he said, “because we had a Republican Congress”. If you want him to enact his aims, the subtext went, you have to vote out the Republicans down ballot, too.

Will voters heed Biden’s call and deliver Congress to the Democrats? It seems that way. For all the drama and preparation that went into tonight’s event, the fact remains that most voters have already made up their minds, and the polls – though they have been horrendously wrong before – seem to indicate that Biden will win the popular vote and that Democrats will expand their lead in the House and possibly retake the Senate. Virtually nothing that could happen during the last debate could change that. An estimated 40 million Americans have already voted, a number that suggests that turnout this year will far exceed 2016. “The character of the country is on the ballot,” Biden said. Many Americans seem to agree with him.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

  • Legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward will discuss the Trump presidency at a Guardian Live online event on Tuesday 27 October, 7pm GMT. Book tickets here

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