Donald Trump drove a steamroller to a knife fight, and Joe Biden managed to survive simply because the overkill was so unseemly to so many observers. It also helped that the former vice president remained standing until the bitter end despite the overwhelming onslaught of invective.
Once again, Biden remains a serious contender to win the Oval Office not so much because of his own strength as a candidate but because of the lack of mainstream support for his opponent – or more precisely in this case -- the president’s inability to operate in anything but bellicose overdrive.
Going into Tuesday night’s debate, the bar for Biden was exceedingly low, especially after President Trump labeled him “Sleepy Joe” and for months relentlessly depicted him as a hollow shell of his former scrappy self. Team Trump tried to raise those expectations days before the debate, but the narrative had been set.
Not that Trump’s latest nickname for the Democratic nominee, Hidin’ Biden, was all that far-fetched amid months of the Democratic nominee remaining cloistered in his Delaware basement, failing to take questions from the media while calling early- morning “lids,” journalism-speak for no additional events for the day.
But as the debate showed, Trump remains his own worst enemy and steps on his own success, leaving Biden looking more presidential simply by not responding to every insult with equal vitriol. Amid the onslaughts, Biden’s best debate responses came when he simply ignored the insults, looked directly into the camera, and spoke to the American people.
“Do you believe for a moment what [Trump’s] telling you in light of all the lies he’s told you about the whole issue relating to COVID?” Biden asked viewers. “He still hasn’t even acknowledged he knew this was happening – knew how dangerous it would be back in February – and he didn’t even tell you.”
Many of Biden’s best lines of the night were clearly rehearsed, but still effective. At one point, he referenced Trump saying about the COVID death toll, “It is what it is.”
“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden added.
Trump came back with a substantive rejoinder that Biden labeled his decision to stop flights from China because of the coronavirus as “xenophobic” – arguing that the Democratic nominee would have continued the flights, allowing infected travelers to arrive in the United States and spread the pathogen.
“If we would’ve listened to you, the country would have been left wide open. Millions of people would have died, not 200,000,” Trump retorted.
It’s nothing the president hasn’t said before, but it came off as on point compared to the rest of the 98-minute chaotic brawl full of interruptions and insults in response to serious questions on the pandemic, the Supreme Court, the economy, and months of violent racial unrest.
Even though Biden didn’t let Trump completely throw him off, it was hardly a stellar performance from the veteran Washington pol who has occupied the presidential debate stage 38 times since his arrival on the national scene in 1972, a dozen of them sparring with his fellow Democratic primary contenders in this campaign cycle. At times, Biden got so caught up in defending himself from attacks, he turned to name-calling.
Early on, he labeled Trump a “liar” and “a clown,” and was so exasperated he resorted to the school-yard command to “shut up.”
After the debate, a focus group of undecided voters in key battleground states tended to agree with the challenger. In a virtual gathering live-streamed on the Los Angeles Times’ YouTube channel, they all blamed Trump for setting the gutter-level tone for the face-off, and none of them -- even the few who said the debate left them more inclined to vote for Trump -- were pleased by the president’s constant interruptions or combative personal attacks.
They also were left unsettled by the choppy, mean-spirited exchanges, feeling completely dissatisfied by the lack of substantive answers on plans to stop the upswing in coronavirus cases and unify the country after months of racial unrest.
Instead of having their minds changed by the first candidate tete-a-tete, these voters appeared to fall back on previously held beliefs about each man.
“Biden being center left and Trump being unhinged and, frankly, a poor leader, is what has directed my decision,” a voter identified as “Luke in Wisconsin” told the focus group panel after the debate.
Luke was impressed by Biden’s blanket claim during the debate that “I am the Democratic Party,” when Trump argued that the “radical left” had taken control and would push him to support the far-left policies such as the Green New Deal and defunding the police.
Yet, others in the focus group organized by pollster Frank Luntz faulted the former vice president for failing to say whether he would pack the Supreme Court if he wins the White House and Democrats regain the Senate. Some Democrats have pushed to expand the number of seats on the court in order to confirm additional liberal justices to the bench in response to Republicans moving to place Amy Coney Barrett in Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat before the November election.
“Whatever position I take in that, that’ll become the issue,” Biden told debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. “The issue is the American people should speak. You’re voting now. Vote, and let your senators know how you feel.”
Undecided voters in the group expressed concern that Biden tried to duck a question about whether he would have urged local officials to call up the National Guard to quell riots, looting and arson taking place in Democratic-run cities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd and several other black Americans who died at the hands of police this year.
“I don’t hold public office,” Biden responded. “I am a former vice president.”
Biden also stressed that he has made it clear in his public statement that violence stemming from protests should be prosecuted, but the undecided voters weren’t impressed.
“When he was challenged about the riots in Portland, and was asked, ‘You’re the Democratic Party; have you reached out to them?’ he said, ‘Well, I’m not an elected official.’ I thought that was a really poor answer from a former vice president, a lifelong Democrat with incredible influence,’” remarked one member of Luntz’ focus group.
Another unprompted moment of weakness for Biden occurred when he inexplicably defended the violent anarchist antifa movement as “an idea, not an organization,” quoting FBI Director Chris Wray’s recent testimony to Congress, which has resurrected calls for his ouster among some conservatives. Wray also argued that antifa activists are a serious concern for the FBI and the group is a “real thing.”
“ ‘Antifa is an idea’ coming to a Trump campaign ad near you in 24-48 hours,” tweeted Joe Concha, a media reporter for The Hill newspaper, after Biden’s statement.
The focus group participants almost unanimously were outraged by Trump’s refusal to clearly condemn white supremacists, but some participants also said they were deeply dissatisfied with both candidates’ failure to lay out a plan to unify the country and address racial strife.
“As a black woman who is very active in my black community, neither of them told me how they would actually come and talk with us about what we want to see happen and how things would actually get better under their administrations, their leadership,” said an undecided voter identified as Kimberly.
With polls showing Trump still lagging in several key battlegrounds he won in 2016, the president had more to gain from the debates than Biden did. But he stepped on his own message by failing to rein in his penchant to come out swinging and never stop, alienating a large swath of voters in the process.
Biden also missed several opportunities to shine and often seemed to lose his train of thought amid the incessant cross-talk and his own exasperation. Those moments may have been far more awkward and telling if Trump hadn’t come across as an aggressive bully who would make any opponent, and the moderator himself, lose his cool.
For the first time in the history of televised presidential debates, organizers barred handshakes out of coronavirus concerns. It’s a sad but apt metaphor for the 2020 pandemic as well as the year’s brutal politics, but in the end it prevented the nasty exchanges from becoming physical between the two septuagenarian men.
“They were both bickering at each other like two men in a nursing home bickering over the last pudding cup,” one focus group participant remarked.
If polling proves accurate, all Biden had to do was not implode on stage. Based on that low bar, he succeeded. But the debate will be remembered most for striking a new campaign low in nasty exchanges that likely did little to move the needle for either side.