Tuesday night was a national embarrassment, and both candidates are to blame. Donald Trump came into the evening apparently determined to dominate the discussion, and he did. To some extent, I think it was effective; he certainly came off as the warmer body with more ideas about what America should be and with more energy to make those ideas come to life. But he was also cruel at times — such as when he dismissed Joe Biden’s late son saying, “I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter” — and acted unfit for office at others, like when he again tossed out a garbled word salad when asked if he would accept the results of the election.
Biden had his own unbecoming moments — “shut up, man!” — but his greatest crime was that he spent the evening hiding his agenda from the American people. It’s obvious why: Trump is unlikable enough to many voters that Biden is hoping to coast into office on the strength of a personality gap between the two. Why get bogged down in policy discussions that could alienate one wing of his party or another? Still, it was galling of a major party nominee to say aloud that he was “not going to answer” whether he would support an effort to pack the court as president. And while that comment may have been the most explicit dodge, it typified his overall performance, which was much less substantive than Trump’s.
Take the debate exchange about the coronavirus. Biden listed the case and fatality numbers before attacking Trump for his failures in leadership. What he didn’t do was explain what his solution would have looked like. Sure, he said he would have provided “all the protective gear possible” and agreed to the second coronavirus relief bill passed by the House. But the Trump administration — its myriad other failings aside — has done a commendable (and usually unacknowledged) job acquiring and distributing ample personal protection equipment (PPE), as Rich Lowry detailed in “The Massive Trump Coronavirus Supply Effort That the Media Loves to Hate.” And it is Senate Democrats who have blocked GOP efforts to pass another relief bill because it was not as expansive as they would have liked.
Trump responded by criticizing Biden for accepting China’s and Russia’s numbers as gospel; he accurately noted that Biden called Trump’s Chinese travel ban “xenophobic,” and then he went on to clumsily defend his record on producing and providing ventilators and PPE. Biden proceeded to hit Trump for both the lockdowns and the death toll, saying that “this is his economy he shut down” and asking “how many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” Considering Biden’s lack of policy fixes and his affinity for shutdowns, it was an unconvincing bit. Biden’s performance in the segment could be summed by this line: “If I were running it, I’d know what the plan is.”
On the economy too, Biden failed to say much of substance. To kick it off, Chris Wallace noted that unemployment was already down to 8.4 percent and asked what Trump’s and Biden’s impression of the recovery was thus far. Trump again rambled, nevertheless making a semi-coherent argument about how lockdowns have all sorts of deleterious effects on the economy and people’s lives. Biden’s rejoinder was that billionaires have thrived during the pandemic while the working class has struggled. That tends to be a winning point, but instead of articulating his own agenda, Biden awkwardly worked his Park Avenue vs. Scranton talking point into the discussion. After that, he spent his time attacking Trump on his tax returns instead of explaining his plan for helping Scranton. A few minutes later, he touched on his tax plan (he would raise them) before the discussion devolved into crosstalk. No one could possibly come away from the debate with a real understanding of what Biden’s economic plan is.
Similarly, during the portion of the debate that focused on the candidates’ records, Biden was less able to point to specific accomplishments than the president was. Trump again mentioned the pre-coronavirus economy, his military “rebuild,” VA reforms, and judges. Biden declined to make an affirmative case for himself, instead asserting that “under this president, we become weaker, sicker, poor, more divided and more violent.” It was a strong line, but he got sidetracked first by his own pivot to calling the president “Putin’s puppy” and then by Trump’s interruptions.
Trump also answered Wallace’s questions on the environment more directly than Biden did. Asked if he believed that humans contribute to climate change, Trump said that he did. Asked why he then rolled back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, he said the plan raised energy prices. Oddly enough, the most comprehensive policy answer of the debate was Trump’s summary of forest-management techniques. Biden’s most substantive answers also came in this section, as he initially did a decent job summing up his green-energy plan, which includes billions of dollars of investment in jobs, installing electric car chargers on highways, and weatherizing 4 million buildings across the country.
However, Biden also asserted that the Green New Deal would pay for itself while insisting that he doesn’t support it and that he has his own “Biden Plan.” This mess is further complicated by his own website — where the third paragraph of the “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” begins, “Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”
Post-debate, most pundits have spent their time chiding Trump for what they saw as boorish and sometimes appalling behavior. Initial polling seems to support their conclusion that Biden won round one. The more important takeaway, however, is that Biden is worried that the campaign will now focus more on issues and less on character and personality, which he see as his strong suit. On the economy, the coronavirus, foreign policy, and his 47-year record, Biden does not have a whole lot to say. This not only presents an opportunity for the Trump campaign, it also raises serious questions about what a Biden presidency would look like. With Election Day rapidly approaching, Americans deserve honest answers from Biden about his views on such matters as the Green New Deal and packing the Supreme Court.
If Joe Biden doesn’t have to commit to any real policies — or even promise not to participate in a power grab as self-evidently destructive as court-packing — to win the presidency, he should at least do so for the good of the country.