Trump Had Sound Bites. Biden Had Substance and Heart.
There’s no escaping this emotional reality: Trump-haters were not-so-secretly hoping that he’d lose it here, and the fact that he didn’t means that he cleared what was by far the lowest bar in presidential debate history.
The Donald Trump of the last few days, whining about everyone from Leslie Stahl to moderator Kristen Welker to probably the White House procurer of iceberg lettuce, looked like someone who was capable of showing up this night and storming off the stage after half an hour. Or five minutes. Or not showing up at all.
But he showed up and lasted the whole time. He got a few punches in (although on Huntergate, not really so much). He was even polite at first. My notes have him saying to Welker, toward the end of the first segment: “Thank you, and I appreciate that.” So the right will crow that this was a great Trump victory that will change everything. But in real life, that’s unlikely. Trump had some sound bites, but Biden had more substance and, in key places, more passion.
Let’s start with Huntergate. Trump got a couple decent jabs in here, but a good number of his punches just landed on Biden’s arms. I spent much of the day reading about Tony Bobulinski and Bohai Harvest RST (if you don’t know those names, there’s probably a reason for that) and all the rest. My sense is that anyone who hasn’t been reading all those New York Post articles was probably a good bit more confused than outraged. Maybe Trump should have rehearsed after all.
Biden had some decent ripostes there. Again, a lot of his punches landed on Trump’s arms, too, but then again, all he really needed to do was deflect. He brought up Trump’s secret Chinese bank account. Deflection achieved.
Incidentally, that topic brought us the one bad moment for Welker, who failed to challenge Trump when he said he closed that account down in 2015, while The New York Times reported that the account is current. Otherwise, she was terrific.
That mostly all happened in the first 35 minutes or so. Then it turned to different aspects of domestic policy, and on all these topics, Trump had very little to say that was probably persuasive to many swing voters, because his record on all these matters (health care, race, immigration, and climate) is lame.
On each of these topics, Biden missed the knockout punch. He missed one on health care that I always think Democrats miss, which is to give a fast, down-and-dirty explanation of why Republicans can’t protect people with preexisting conditions while eliminating the individual mandate. It’s not that complicated, and a well-phrased explanation of this would instantly make most people see that what Trump and Republicans are saying on this point is bullshit. But maybe they already know that anyway.
He missed another clean blow when the discussion turned a few moments later to stalled COVID relief. Trump blamed Nancy Pelosi, which sounded incredibly weak. Biden attacked Mitch McConnell, saying McConnell couldn’t get a relief bill through his caucus, which is true enough, but the obvious thing to have said was this: “Nancy Pelosi’s not the president. You are, sir. If you wanted a bill, you call people together and make them talk until you have a bill.”
A couple times, though, Biden did come close. His passion on the minimum wage was great. I loved the way he defiantly said that yes, a $15 minimum wage is absolutely the right thing to do.
Incidentally, Trump implicitly came out in this debate for no federal minimum wage, for what may be the first time as far as I know. “It should be a state option,” he said. That’s a really radical position, like out there in Milton Friedman land. Reminder: In 2016, Trump refused to join the Scott Walkers and others in saying a federal minimum wage was a bad idea. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s a position the Biden camp might use a few of its endless millions to push out there.
And Biden was terrific on the 525 children separated from their parents at the border. Trump tried to blame coyotes and cartels, and Biden was having none of it: “Those children came with their parents. And they were separated... It makes us a laughingstock. Those kids are alone, nowhere to go, nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
Bottom line: Trump did rally for some sound bites that Fox News will celebrate, but he lost ground as the debate went on and he had to defend his record.
As is so often the case, the next 24 to 48 hours will be key. Lindsey Graham hinted at one key direction of spin to Sean Hannity. “The stunning news to me tonight is that Vice President Biden is going to destroy the oil and gas industry in this country,” Graham told Hannity. He didn’t say that, of course, but he came sorta-kinda close. As ever on these matters, Republicans will proceed as if public opinion is maniacally pro-fossil fuel, which it is not; but that’s the issue Republicans are going to push in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas. And it might play. Liberals should keep an eye on this.
But overall, Trump was speaking to hardcore Fox News viewers. Biden at least had moments when he was talking to America. Trump had no meltdown. We’ll find out soon if swing voters thought he had a better night than that. It’s possible. But if that didn’t happen, “no meltdown” isn’t enough for someone 10 points behind.