It’s a shame that Joe Biden couldn’t attend Tuesday night’s debate.
Okay, Biden was in attendance, but during the 90 minutes, it felt like he barely ever finished a complete sentence.
It’s not clear that President Trump necessarily won the night, in the sense that people who were leaning against voting for him are going to start preferring him. But with motor-mouthed, relentless heckling and constant interruptions, Trump made it impossible for Biden to make any of his arguments. Trump did to Biden what Biden did to Paul Ryan eight years ago.
A few times, Biden lost his cool: “Would you shut up, man?” “Keep yappin’, man.” “It’s hard to get anything in with this clown.” In other circumstances, the challenger taking that tone with the president of the United States would backfire. But Trump is unlike any other president, with no use for decorum, restraint, or rules, and so Biden is unlikely to suffer much for his own outbursts.
God help you if you tuned in, hoping to learn more about the candidates’ policies. Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania. Like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Trump just expanded to fill the whole room, filling up his time and spilling over into Biden’s time, hammering home whatever he wanted to talk about, whether it was related to Chris Wallace’s question or not. The transcript is going to read something like this:
WALLACE: Gentlemen, if we could-
WALLACE: Gentlemen, this is not—
WALLACE: I swear to God, if you two don’t please—
A lot of Democrats are going to blame Chris Wallace for this, but no moderator ever faced a challenge like this before. After about an hour, Wallace did his best impression of an irate dad ready to turn this car around right now if the kids in the backseat didn’t stop bickering. But Wallace’s fuming didn’t change the tone of the debate that much. Trump simply didn’t care what the rules were; any time he thought of some zinger, counter-argument, or insult, he let loose — and fairly or not (mostly unfairly) Biden often looked frustrated and flummoxed.
Trump fans will look at this and conclude their man won. He certainly made it impossible for Biden to make his points, and Trump had way more time to make his own arguments, so by that standard, Trump “won.” But I’m not sure a performance like this is what dislodges Biden supporters and brings them over to the Trump side, or wins over whatever remaining undecided voters are out there. Maybe on the margins, soft Biden supporters found the Democratic nominee overwhelmed by Trump’s relentless barrage this evening, and wonder if Biden can handle the pressures of the presidency. But I wouldn’t expect to see much movement in the poll numbers.
I suspect many Democrats will declare this debate was a train wreck and waste of time and encourage Biden to withdraw from the next two debates. Who knows, perhaps he will. The American people know their options by now.
There’s one other unusual aspect of this evening.
For the past five decades, all Joe Biden has had to do is show up and be himself.
There isn’t a huge difference between the Biden of the 1988 presidential campaign and the 2008 campaign and the 2020 campaign. He’s more or less the same guy from the Anita Hill hearings to the crime bill to the Iraq War to the vice presidency. He looks a lot older and maybe he speaks — or thinks? — slower than he used to, but he’s still pretty much the same guy.
He’s always been garrulous, usually amiable, something of a blowhard, unintentionally goofy with his gaffes. Who he was, naturally and instinctively, was usually good enough for whatever was in front of him. After he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, no Republican ever won more than 41 percent against him. His natural instincts were good enough to make him the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Foreign Relations Committee. Obama had a lot of options for his running mate who were younger and from more valuable states, but he chose Biden. As vice president, Biden generated more than his share of gaffes — “Stand up, Chuck!” — but the Obamas and the rest of the administration valued him as a member of the team. (Maybe an administration brimming with self-regard like the previous one needed a veep making silly faces behind the president during the State of the Union Address.)
This cycle, being the familiar old Joe Biden was enough to overtake Bernie Sanders. He didn’t even really need to campaign that hard; Biden won Minnesota Democratic primary without visiting the state once. Once the pandemic hit, most of the traditional tools of campaigning weren’t available to Biden; he just had to make intermittent appearances via video and attend virtual fundraisers.
And up until tonight, just being himself was enough.
Tonight, it wasn’t enough.