The Corner

Elections

The First Debate Showed Why Biden Will Win

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in the first 2020 presidential campaign debate with President Donald Trump in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton, and that will be enough to win him the election this November.

This much has been clear since Super Tuesday this year during the Democratic primaries. In 2016, Hillary split several very important states with Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday, and those she won, she won without walking away. In 2020, Democrats reran the same experiment with Joe Biden, even keeping Bernie the also-ran around to act as a control factor. The results were strikingly different. Biden annihilated Sanders on Super Tuesday. It appears that a lot of the Vermont senator’s support in those states last time around was motivated more by antipathy towards Hillary than by affection for Sanders and his agenda. Given the opportunity to vote for someone other than Hillary, voters ditched Sanders in droves.

The same dynamic will play out in the general election this November. Voters who flocked to Trump in 2016 because he met the indispensable criteria of not-being-Hillary will abandon him when offered a non-Hillary alternative.

The first debate showed why this result is all but inevitable at this point. At several intervals, the president descended into what can only be described as merciless bullying. Biden, it should be noted, was susceptible to bullying in the first place because he appeared to be punch-drunk from the get-go, and could not seem to find his marbles at any point during the debate.

But Trump went seriously out of bounds at several points. He refused to acknowledge Beau Biden’s honorable military service, pivoting instead to Hunter Biden’s cocaine addiction. Needless to say, family struggles with substance abuse would be completely out of bounds during a political debate in a healthy, dignified society. 

But the personal attacks didn’t really land. They just drew attention to Trump’s comprehensive paucity of class and moral fibre. And they didn’t land because they weren’t directed at Hillary Clinton. Trump’s pugnacious and bullish behavior is not a new debate tactic that he’s picked up this year. His behavior during the debates with Clinton was very similar — he even insinuated that he’d throw her in jail given the chance. But Trump’s pugilism didn’t hurt his debate performances as much last cycle because it was aimed at Hillary, a woman for whom huge swathes of the electorate cannot muster a single shred of sympathy. She was so disliked and so abhorred by so many Americans, that everything Trump threw in her direction was, if not applauded, then ignored in light of Clinton’s own record of staggering moral illiteracy.

The truth is that Donald Trump as a candidate was tailor-made to beat Hillary Clinton, but his style of politics doesn’t adapt very well to less hated opponents. Put him in a room with a candidate even marginally more sympathetic than Hillary and he comes across as little more than a latter-day Biff Tanner, tormenting whichever hapless McFly is unfortunate enough to be in close proximity to him. 

The first debate solidified a conviction I have long held about this era of American politics: that Hillary Clinton will go down as its most significant and influential actor. She was such a bad primary candidate in 2016 that she opened the door for a socialist takeover of the party base. She was such a bad candidate in the general that she lost to the headliner of WrestleMania 23, who will in turn lose this fall because his entire political personality was cultivated to exploit the nation’s antipathy towards Clinton, and there’s no other electoral lock that he can pick. When all is said and done, Hillary Clinton’s epoch-defining awfulness as a candidate for public office will be seen as the hinge around which this entire decade of political history in America turns. Trump tried all the old tricks tonight that he pulled out in 2016, but not running against Clinton proved to be his Kryptonite. It’s simply harder for most people to hate Joe Biden than it was for them to hate Hillary Clinton, and so Trump’s personal depravity comes across less as Defcon-1 necessity and more as a sordid personal and national disgrace.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two least popular major party nominees to ever run for president. Not being Clinton was enough for Trump to win. It stands to reason that not being either of them will be enough for Biden to win as well. 

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