CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 29: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in the first presidential debate against U.S. President Donald Trump at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Not that we need to pay super close attention to polls — they’ve clearly failed us before, and they cannot make us complacent when it comes to voting — but Joe Biden is currently leading President Donald Trump 50% to 41% nationally. As far as what that meant for Biden’s debate strategy, all the former Vice President had to do was be competent and stay the course. Trump, who made a disaster of the last one by constantly interrupting Biden and lobbing personal insults, could only improve this time around.
Well, or not. While Trump was less aggressive in the second presidential debate on Thursday, and attempted fewer interruptions — partially helped by the newly installed mute button (cue: *Hallelujah!*) — he continued to tell lies about the coronavirus pandemic and just about everything else. He said his son Barron’s COVID “just went away,” strongly — and incorrectly — implying that the disease doesn’t affect children, and argued that Biden wants to shut down the entire country, and that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
Trump also attacked his former home city of New York as being a ghost town, which is not only BS because we are looking out of our window and there are about 50 people (safely distanced) sitting outdoors at restaurants and laughing instead of watching the debate, but also because this city and state are doing better than most of the country since we had sensible restrictions instead of opening everything up and watching cases soar.
“People are learning to live with it,” Trump said about the coronavirus. “People are learning to die with it,” Biden quickly retorted, conjuring up the image of “an empty chair at the kitchen table” where someone’s family member used to sit, the first moment of several during this debate when he made a personal appeal to the American public. Biden also drew a necessary distinction between “shutting down the entire country” — what Trump accused him of wanting to do — and what he would actually do, which is put reasonable safety measures in communities that need it, rapid testing, contact tracing, and a mask requirement.
Another strength of Biden’s tonight has been making relevant and effective pivots as Trump continues to attack him and his family personally, such as when Trump made the entirely baseless accusation that Hunter Biden received $3.5 million from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, and then said some nonsense about “pillows and sheets” that no one really understood.
Biden did two things right in response to those attacks: He smartly pivoted to Trump’s refusal to pay taxes, which continues to haunt the president and the shamelessness of which is hard to refute. He also continued to speak to the many people who have been affected by COVID and the economy, swiftly changing the subject from Trump’s accusations to people’s hardships. “He doesn’t want to talk about substantive issues,” Biden said. “If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now. We should be talking about your families, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.” His Scranton roots were, of course, brought up.
Instead of responding with how he, too, wants to help the American people (literally his job description), Trump called Biden a “typical politician” because of course only “typical politicians” empathize with the public, while men of the people like Trump accuse their opponents of foreign deals that no one in the electorate really cares about.
Clearly Trump is floundering tonight, because when it’s time to talk about real issues — struggling businesses, healthcare, COVID — he simply doesn’t have the range. The “I’m not like those other politicians” act just hasn’t stuck, because he has no results to back up the faux-populist swagger. So he insults and shouts and compares himself favorably to Abraham Lincoln. (No, really.) Biden knew this at the last debate, but couldn’t get a word in edgewise because Trump yelled over him. This time, he actually called Trump out on his “malarkey.” (And that mute button certainly helped.)
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