The mikes-off-while-the-other-guy-is-talking format Thursday night was a great improvement over the first Trump-Biden debate, and was a big help to moderator Kristen Welker, who was able to avoid the two-toddlers-fighting atmosphere that overwhelmed Chris Wallace last time. The format helped save Donald Trump from himself. The good news for both candidates is that they avoided any real disasters in how they came across — at least, beyond the baseline problem of being Donald Trump and Joe Biden — and keeping the focus on their actual answers. Biden was a bit rambly (as was Trump, as usual), but never got totally lost from his train of thought.
Trump is not especially skilled at prosecuting a case, and fumbled badly in trying to make an issue of Hunter Biden’s influence-peddling (and Joe’s involvement in it), never nailing down Biden to answer the question of whether he denied the authenticity of the recently-surfaced laptop and its contents — although Biden did appear to claim that it was entirely a Russian plant. Trump managed to get baited, instead, into talking about his own taxes. Trump’s default of berating Biden did work at a few junctures, such as making it obvious that Biden was ducking questions about the Obama Administration’s use of cages on children at the border, while Trump himself was ducking inconvenient questions about family separation.
But Trump did manage to trigger unquestionably the worst moment of the night from Biden, right at the end, when Biden answered a Trump question about doing away with the oil industry by stating frankly — and at some length — that he was planning to transition the U.S. away from the oil industry. That is undoubtedly going to be the lead takeaway from Republicans after this. Biden also flatly denied ever having promised to end fracking — which he’s on tape doing at the March debate with Bernie Sanders — and swiftly flip-flopped from saying he’s not against fracking to saying he wants to ban it on federal land. If there is one issue where Biden is vulnerable in key states due to his party’s leftist extremism, it’s on energy policy.
We got a few flashes of personality. Biden snarked at Trump as “Abraham Lincoln here” for bragging ridiculously that he had been the best president for black Americans since Lincoln. When Biden riffed, on some of Trump’s citation to numbers, “I don’t know where he comes from,” Trump deadpanned, “Queens.” There was also a bizarre exchange where Trump more or less accused Biden of wanting to ban windows, going on about how Biden wants to tear down buildings to rebuild them with “tiny windows.” And Trump broke the fourth wall at one point: when Biden tried to turn away from the Hunter Biden influence-peddling story by talking piously about how this election is really about your family, Trump did the Trumpy thing: rather than share in Biden’s concern for the average voter, he just mocked Biden for giving a “politiciany” phony answer. Whether or not this works, nobody else does this the way Trump does.
Both candidates were obviously talking out of both sides of their mouths on race and crime, with Trump trying to simultaneously claim the mantle of opposing excessive incarceration and being the law and order, pro-police candidate, while Biden was racing away from his 1994 crime bill. The reality is that the crime policies Biden backed in the 1990s were mostly good, or at least necessary and prudent at the time, and Trump and most people in both parties supported them then. That shouldn’t prevent us from reconsidering some of them now, but it is clear that Biden’s conversion on this issue is insincere and opportunistic, just as it is clear that Trump does not even see his own contradictions.
Trump still does not have a particularly good way of talking about the coronavirus, but Biden still managed to be considerably less realistic: promising to do things we’re already doing, denying that he’s in favor of shutdowns while talking about all the things he thinks we should shut down, blaming Trump for every death, promising no vaccine until the middle of next year and 220,000 more deaths in the next nine-to-ten weeks, and generally letting Trump take the high ground on wanting things reopened.
There’s only so much Trump can do now to change the race, and this was by no means a great debate performance, nor a faceplant by Biden. But Trump did nothing in particular to really hurt himself this time, and Biden’s line about oil might have some legs.