Trump Won the Debate Night. It’s Not Nearly Enough.
Trump, a master of projection, was able to pull off a pretty impressive trick, at least for one night, which was to turn the other guy into the incumbent.
Bleeding badly and in need of a knockout, Donald Trump inched out the ninth round of a 10-round heavyweight fight—on points. It probably won’t be enough to win the election, but it was enough to keep things interesting—and keep his fans from heading for the exits.
Trump did it by executing two almost contradictory feats. First, unlike the first debate where he interrupted constantly, he stayed calm. Second, Trump, the flailing incumbent who has been losing the referendum on Trump, made the election about Joe Biden—at least for one night.
It’s not uncommon for presidents (think Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Barack Obama in 2012) to bounce back from a bad debate, providing the media with something of a “comeback” narrative. And Trump’s first debate was such a disaster that it was fairly easy to show improvement. He’s defined deviancy down, or maybe dead.
Of course, he had some help. After the first debate debacle, the commission on presidential debates instituted a new policy which allowed the microphone of the candidate not talking to be muted. This, ironically, helped Trump appear more presidential.
To be fair, Joe Biden turned in a solid performance. His line, “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” for example, was a good one. And Trump missed his shot to force Biden to talk about all of the money his son Hunter has made off of his name, by assuming the audience is super internet savvy or at least tuning in to Sean Hannity on a nightly basis. At one point, Trump referred to Biden as “the big guy” in a reference to Hunter’s “laptop from hell,” as he put it, that I’m guessing went over the heads of 90 percent of debate viewers.
But, again, Trump, a master of projection, was able to pull off a pretty impressive trick, at least for one night, which was to turn the other guy into the incumbent. The most daring escape act was when Trump was asked about foreign election interference, and somehow it was Biden(!) who ended up being put on the defensive.
Despite being president for almost four years, more than once Trump kept referring to Biden as a “politician.” In so doing, Trump forced Biden to defend Barack Obama-era policies, as well as Biden’s days in the U.S. Senate, particularly the impact of his 1994 crime bill on Black men. Biden never actually used the words “super predators,” as Trump suggested, but it hardly mattered.
Trump also accused Biden of being “all talk and no action,” citing the many decades Biden has been in politics, and then questioned why Biden couldn’t fix whatever problem they happen to be discussing during his long tenure. On one occasion, discussing immigration, Biden made the mistake of blaming Republicans in congress for stymying legislation—an argument that seems to cut against the notion that Republicans will have an “epiphany” and work across the aisle with him if he wins the presidency.
Interestingly, although the Hunter Biden controversy certainly came up, it did not dominate the night the way that it might have. After the Access Hollywood tape dropped four years ago, Trump somehow managed to twist much of the subsequent debate into one about Bill Clinton’s sex life. He didn’t manage to turn this debate into a conversation about Hunter; rather, as I said, I doubt anyone who wasn’t already immersed in that story had much idea what Trump was talking about when he brought it up repeatedly in the first half hour.
So Trump, who needs to make up ground and threw away his chance to do that when he walked away from what was supposed to have been the second of three debates, may have won the second and final debate on points. If Trump had run his campaign the way he ran the night, that might have been enough. But the fact of the matter is you can’t fix four years in an hour-and-a-half.
That’s the first fundamental problem for Trump. He squandered his presidency and is running out of time.
The second fundamental problem is that Trump still can’t turn Joe Biden into a villain, or someone else. Biden isn’t Kamala Harris, and Kamala Harris probably isn’t the most radical Democrat in the Senate, as Trump keeps insisting. Nor is Joe Biden Bernie Sanders or AOC—a point Biden is very adept at making. Oh yeah, Joe Biden isn’t even Hunter Biden, either.
Ultimately, Biden left us with a line from the debate that might sum up his entire campaign rationale. “You know who I am, you know who he is," he said. "You know his character, you know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth. I am anxious to have this race. I am anxious to see this take place. The character of the country is on the ballot.”
As to Trump’s last hope, the “Biden is senile” idea he spent months trying to seed when it became clear Biden couldn’t be demonized just doesn’t hold water after watching the former vice president go toe-to-toe with the “Master of Disaster” for 10 rounds.
Biden went the distance. He threw some hard counterpunches of his own, and—most importantly—avoided being knocked out. Nine rounds in, that was enough.