Presidential debates are useful because the candidates actually do tell you who they will be in office.
Joe Biden, in the final debate on Thursday night, made it clear he'll be a conventional liberal Democratic president, who will take the job seriously and try to solve problems. His value-added is his capacity for empathy, or at least for performing empathy.
Anticipating attacks on his son, Hunter, he had a prepared line about not caring to talk about Donald Trump's family or his own family but about the families of the American people. He sounded genuinely outraged at the president's family-separation policy.
But most of all, the former vice president outlined normal Democratic plans — not centrist but not from the Bernie Sanders side of the party — for health care, climate change, foreign policy and for whatever else moderator Kristen Welker threw at him.
Even when he botched bits of it (as I think he did on his health-care plan), it was obvious he had command of the topics, and could discuss them at a complex level.
Biden's most Biden line: "When we were president and vice president," delivered without any explanation about who he meant by "we."
Donald Trump's most Trump line? "I take full responsibility. It's not my fault."
Trump promised that his second term would be much like the first. He won't bother to learn anything about government and policy. His main sources of information will be Fox News and, even better, the more obscure and extreme outlets of the Republican-aligned media. (Except when he isn't just making stuff up, as he did with the nonsense about wind power that he loves to repeat.)
An excellent example: When asked about the child separations at the border, he referred to a two-year-old Fox News "gotcha" story about a picture that was once misidentified as having been from his administration but that was actually from the Barack Obama administration. It basically had nothing to do with the question.
Nor did his tone-deaf claim that the cages his administration had put the children in were really clean. As for empathy? According to Trump, Biden's claim to actually care about voters was just politician talk.
He still has no answer for what to do next on the pandemic. He repeats what he has been saying since mid-April: that he deserves credit for how brilliant the U.S. response has been, and that the vaccine will be here any day now.
He barely tries to make his fictions plausible. He's still pushing the notion that had he not been elected president, the U.S. would have been at war — a nuclear war — with North Korea. He's still claiming that he's been the best president for Black Americans since Lincoln.
Even when he has his numbers correct — there have been a lot of jobs restored since April — he frames it as some sort of economic boom, rather than acknowledge that we've now hit 30 consecutive weeks of record-level unemployment insurance filings and still have recession-level unemployment. No wonder he didn't even bother saying what he planned to do about that.
Indeed, Trump doesn't appear to have any policy plans at all for a second term. Which is not a surprise, since he didn't do much during his first term, but still it's amazing that he can't even pretend anymore. Besides having no economic strategy, he offered no health-care plan (other than the one he's always promising will be unveiled in two weeks); there's not even an infrastructure plan, which at one point he sort of had but has apparently lost interest in.
The only thing he seemed interested in during the debate, in addition to attacking Joe Biden, was in attacking Hunter Biden and Democrats in general, although in most cases his accusations were likely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't kept up with Republican-aligned media.
None of what was said by either candidate on Thursday night is likely to affect who wins the election. But if anyone is wondering who Biden or Trump will be in the Oval Office for the next four years, the final debate was pretty educational.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.