The surreality of Trump’s approach started moments into Tuesday night’s event, when the president insisted that Biden, who opposes Medicare-for-all, actually supported it. But it may have peaked during an exchange on crime and racial justice, when Trump dared Biden to mention “law and order,” and Biden did so.
“I am in favor of law — you following it,” Biden said. “Law and order with justice, where people get treated fairly.”
Trump’s response, just seconds later, was that Biden had not just said what he’d said. “He doesn’t want to say law and order because he can’t, because he’ll lose his radical left supporters,” Trump argued. “Once he does that, it’s over with.”
The presidential debate, the first in American history where one candidate (Biden) told his rival to simply “shut up,” was a debacle in several ways, all of them predictable. Trump, who live-tweets Fox News many mornings, approached the debate like he approaches his rallies — a chance to count his successes and shame the rest of the media for not appreciating them. Biden took it as a chance to reintroduce himself to an electorate that is leaning in his direction, yet sometimes confused about his positions and unsure of electing a president who’ll turn 80 before the end of his first term.
Trump set a low bar, and Biden ambled right over it. In the final hours before the debate, the president’s campaign and surrogates, as well as friendly Fox News hosts, insisted that Biden was “senile” or an “invalid,” speculated that he might use mind-enhancing drugs or an earpiece, and reminisced over Biden verbal stumbles that made little national news outside of conservative media.
“He can’t do the prologue to the, to the, to, uh, to the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, any of them,” Rudy Giuliani stammered on Fox News, a few hours before Trump traveled to Cleveland, trying to invoke a Biden gaffe from 210 days earlier. Days earlier, Giuliani had helped Trump prepare for the debate.
Biden did not sound younger than his 77 years, and he missed opportunities to grind down Trump. Challenged by the president on “law enforcement” support, for example, he didn’t mention his endorsements from hundreds of sheriffs. But he didn’t interrupt himself or make a commitment he’d have to walk back. The closest he came to that was saying “the Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward,” accidentally adopting moderator Chris Wallace’s framing of an environmental question and making it sound like he backed a left-wing plan that he opposes. Yet seconds later, after Biden clarified the comment, Trump bailed him out.
“Oh, you don’t?” Trump said when Biden said he did not support the Green New Deal. “Oh, that is a big statement.” Biden’s refusal to endorse the concept, a transformation of the economy on a faster schedule than he’s comfortable with, had been well-covered through the Democratic primary.
Trump approached Tuesday night’s event more aggressively than his debates with Hillary Clinton, even the bitter town hall forum where he snapped that she’d “be in jail” if he’d been president during the probe of her email server. At the same time, he lost the focus he had in those debates, which stuck with even the voters who thought Clinton had been more presidential and levelheaded. Anyone who watched only this debate, and ignored other coverage of the race, got a few flashes of Trump second-term priorities — “drug prices will be coming down 80 or 90 percent” — but far less of an idea of what he would do than what Biden would do. And Trump’s effort to push Biden off course took up time when he could have been filling in the gaps.
In his first debate with Clinton, for example, Trump mentioned trade 10 times and made the same promise twice: “We have to renegotiate our trade deals.” Last night, remarkably, it was Biden who mentioned trade, saying incorrectly that “we have a higher deficit with China now than we did before,” without any pushback from Trump.
The president’s response started out incoherently (“China ate your lunch, down 18 percent”), then swerved into the first of two attacks on Biden’s son Hunter. Biden survived those exchanges, turning to the audience to talk about his son’s drug addiction, and how the election was about “your family,” not his or Trump’s. Just as importantly, Trump never coherently argued a point he’d made for his entire career: that a Washington elite had sold out America and its jobs.
“He totally gave up on manufacturing,” Trump said.
“I’m the guy who brought back the automobile industry,” Biden said, prompting Trump to talk about job growth in Ohio and Michigan before the covid-19 pandemic — again, offering no vision for a second term.
Trump focused instead on punditry and on digressions into topics that no moderator would have brought up but have been widely discussed on his favorite media. Some of it was too inside baseball to connect (“you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn”), though some of it piqued interest. According to Google Trends, the top search about Biden when the debate was over was about where he attended college and the third was about whether he had called Black people “super predators.”
At the end of any search, however, readers would learn that Biden never confused where he went to college and that he did not call Black people “super predators.” Biden’s unprecedented derision of the president was startling, but he had an advantage that can go unappreciated in daily coverage of the race. Most voters believe that the president is dishonest, and a smaller majority of voters think that the president holds racist beliefs.
Biden took full advantage of this, repeatedly turning to TV cameras and asking voters if they really believed Trump. In the moment that shaped the first wave of debate coverage, he also used it to spring a trap.
The Democrat had long angered Trump and his supporters by referring to the president’s reaction to the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” In conservative media, this is sometimes called the “very fine people hoax,” after a years-long effort to say Trump’s remarks were taken out of context and point to the other reactions he had to the “Unite the Right Rally” and the killing of activist Heather Heyer.
On Tuesday, Trump did not contest the quote, instead pivoting to attack Biden’s passage of the 1994 crime bill. But later, when Wallace asked the president if he would condemn white supremacists, Trump snapped at the question. “Give me a name,” he said, looking at Wallace.
“Proud Boys,” said Biden, looking at Trump, referring to a male-only group of “western chauvinists” who engage in street fights against left-wing protesters. “Proud Boys.”
Incredibly, Trump took the bait, telling the group to “stand back and stand by.” Biden flashed a smile, and the comment itself was so confusing that the group considered it an endorsement and the president’s oldest son said he’d misspoken. And as the debate ended, Trump compounded it, urging supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” raising the specter of the president’s biggest fans intimidating Democratic voters.
That left a familiar fear in the mind of Democrats, even if they thought Biden had done enough to keep or grow his lead. Walking out of the debate, Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, both of Delaware, spun what they saw as Biden’s best moments; Saying the election was about “your family,” said Blunt Rochester, was “the line of the night.” But it was the tone that stuck with them, and the musing about whether Trump’s supporters would need to prevent an election rigged against him.
“You had one guy on stage acting like a president, and it wasn’t the president,” said Coons. “How does this look to people watching us around the world?” He started to speculate, worriedly, on what would happen if Trump won the election. But he stopped himself, and packed for the trip back to Washington.
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There were just two statistically significant snap polls on last night’s debate, both of which found its audience preferring Biden’s approach to Trump’s. A CBS/YouGov poll, based on 1,039 interviews of likely voters, found 48 percent of voters calling Biden the winner, to 41 percent who thought Trump won and 10 percent who saw a tie. CNN’s poll, of 568 registered voters, was better for Biden, with 60 percent of voters saying he’d won the night, to just 28 percent for Trump.
Unlike CBS, CNN had asked its sample, before the debate, who it had expected to win. Fifty-six percent had said Biden, more than in many other polls that attempted early gut-checks of how voters thought the oldest-ever nominee for president would do. Before the debate, the CNN sample had a positive view of Biden by 21 points; it viewed Trump negatively by 26 points. That’s out of proportion with most polls, which have shown Biden viewed more favorably than Trump, but only by 10 points or so.
The record for these quick polls is solid, if the numbers were decisive — there hasn’t been much movement in the horse race after debates that voters saw as draws. But the change in voter attitudes about the candidates was significant. In CBS’s poll, by a six-point margin, voters said the debate made them “think better” of Biden, while by an 18-point margin, they said it made them think worse of Trump. In CNN’s poll, favorable views of Biden rose by a net four points after the debate, while favorable views of Trump declined by four points.
Joe Biden is trekking through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania today, and Donald Trump is stumping in northern Minnesota. Historically, the day-after rallies give candidates the opportunity to spin what happened at debates, reboot their message and focus on lines they want emphasized.
They won’t meet again until Oct. 15, but Kamala Harris will debate Mike Pence in a week. Harris made the TV rounds on Tuesday night after the debate was over, but she continued to struggle on a relatively narrow topic: whether she would support adding seats to the Supreme Court.
“We are 35 days away from an election,” Harris told CNN. “There is nothing about these next 35 days that Joe or I will take for granted.” Biden had navigated around the same question Tuesday night, but the pressure will be on Harris, over the next week, to thread the needle on questions where she and Biden disagreed during the primary; she had been open to at least a conversation on “court-packing,” and he had not.
… seven days until the vice-presidential debate
… 15 days until the second presidential debate
… 22 days until the third presidential debate
… 34 days until the general election
… 75 days until the electoral college votes