At Townhall, Biden Channels Mr. Rogers
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
At Townhall, Biden Channels Mr. Rogers
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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One of the most chaotic news cycles in an election season full of them is coming to an end this week with Democrats embracing their presidential nominee as a reassuring Mr. Rogers while the other side is casting him as the ringleader of a crime family.

Yes, this could be the final gasp of campaign 2020, where the split-screen image America voters are watching is as radically divergent as it can get.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were supposed to debate each other Thursday night. When that event fell apart over Trump’s refusal to engage his opponent virtually after being diagnosed with COVID-19, both candidates accepted offers from major broadcast networks to participate in townhalls airing at the same time.

The switch turned out to be a net positive for Biden when it comes to displaying his skill at talking calmly with voters – even those expressing differences with him. But it wasn’t a slam dunk by any means. His performance was also marred by some wildly uneven moments and windy responses from him, along with an outright refusal to answer whether he supports packing the Supreme Court -- though promising he would do so before Nov. 3.

Throughout the dueling forums, Twitter lit up with Biden supporters’ sharply contrasting the calm and collegial tone of the ABC townhall hosted by George Stephanopoulos with the combative faceoff between Trump and NBC host Savannah Guthrie before she turned to voters in the audience for questions.

As the Biden forum wrapped up, “Mr. Rogers” was trending on Twitter after Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser for President Trump’s reelection campaign, compared the Democratic nominee’s performance to the long-running children’s show aimed at preschoolers.

“Well @JoeBiden @ABCPolitics townhall feels like I’m watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood,” she tweeted, misspelling Fred Rogers last name.

Conservative critics were irate over Guthrie’s grilling of Trump for nearly 20 minutes during a format supposedly dedicated to questions from voters. They also took issue with Stephanopoulos’ light touch with Biden.

Biden’s supporters eagerly embraced the Mr. Rogers analogy, arguing it was a “self-own” for Team Trump because Rogers was known for his soothing, patient and kind demeanor.

“Pretty telling that this crew thinks Mr. Rogers is the bad guy,” tweeted Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas.

Meanwhile, during the same hour, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was revealing purportedly new Hunter Biden emails resurrecting a narrative that Biden, while vice president, demanded the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor because he was investigating energy firm Burisma, for which Hunter worked as a highly paid board member. Twitter and Facebook for the prior 48 hours had prevented their users from tweeting or posting a New York Post story about the emails and calling into question previous assertions from Biden that he knew nothing about his son’s lucrative business deals in Ukraine and China. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, over the same two days has slammed the presidential nominee as the head of the “Biden Crime Family” over the lucrative contracts. Giuliani provided the emails to the New York Post, which he said were obtained from a laptop Hunter Biden dropped off at a repair shop last year and never picked up.

Throughout the 90 minute-townhall, interrupted for commercials, Biden fielded audience inquiries but received none from Stephanopoulos, nor the audience, about the propriety of Hunter Biden’s overseas deals and any links to his father.

Holding his mask in one hand and prepared notes in the other, Biden took a soft, measured approach to the questions. Though he often droned on with lengthy responses, he never raised his voice or grew testy.

Kelly Leigh, an undecided voter, asked if he would take the vaccine that Trump has so often touted will soon be available, considering that Kamala Harris, his running mate, said she wouldn’t if Trump alone were to endorse it. Biden responded that he would take such a vaccine, but also pointed to some of Trump’s more bizarre statements about remedies – some of which the president has brushed off as sarcasm.

"No. 1: President Trump talks about things that just aren't accurate about everything," Biden said. "The point is that if the scientists, if the body of scientists, say if this is what is ready to be done, been tested, gone through the three phases, yes, I'd take it, encourage people to take it. President Trump says things like everything from crazy stuff he's walking away from now, 'Inject bleach in your arm and that's going to work.'"

Throughout the townhall, Biden spent so much time on policy minutiae that the questioners often looked nonplused. One of those moments came when Cedric Humphrey, a young black man, asked, “What do you have to say to young black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?”

At first, Biden said young black voters would have the power to determine the outcome of the election if they would only exercise their right to vote. Then, he dove off a policy cliff, leaving Humphrey staring at him with a blank expression. Along with spotlighting criminal justice reform as a way to help the black community, Biden delivered a mini-dissertation on how black Americans would be helped by his administration to “gain wealth.”

When it comes to violent protests demanding justice for black men and women killed by police, Biden said the solution isn’t defunding the police, and argued he would give law enforcement new tools without diminishing their budgets.

“Cops are kind of like schoolteachers now,” he said. “You know, a schoolteacher has to know everything from … how to handle hunger in a household, as well as how to teach how to read," Biden said. "Well, cops don't have that breadth."

Pressed again on whether he would pack the court, Biden rambled, repeating that he has never been a fan on doing so, but now, depending on how the Senate handles Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat, he may change his mind. Her confirmation next week is considered a fait accompli.

"It depends on how much they rush this," Biden said. When Stephanopoulos asked whether he believes voters “have a right to know where you stand,” he answered, "Yes," but then quickly followed with the caveat, "depending on how they handle this."

Biden also continued to insist that he would not ban fracking – a major industry in Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt battleground states – despite previous repeated claims that he would. He added that investing in renewable energy would produce better environmental results and more jobs. Biden argued that 128,000 people could be hired to fill oil wells, "and get a good salary doing it."

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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