Nearly every poll finds that Joe Biden began the day ahead of President Trump. If so, I think he’s still ahead after tonight’s debate, and he may be further ahead than before.
Biden showed that he can hang in with Trump at his most aggressive for two hours without faltering. There was no moment in which Biden struck me as being less than fully with it.
A check of the tapes would show, I think, that Biden was almost as sharp in this debate as he was in his 2012 encounter with Paul Ryan. Biden remains able to stick to a script, to lie with a straight face, to dodge questions to which he has no good answer (e.g., about packing the Supreme Court), and to brawl with his opponent.
President Trump has all of the same attributes, except that, for better or worse, he’s largely unscripted.
Generally speaking, Trump doesn’t need a script. However, he missed out on several opportunities because he didn’t offer specifics to back up some of his potentially explosive statements.
For example, Trump asserted that Biden would destroy the suburbs, but he didn’t explain why. He didn’t mention the key AFFH measures Biden supports that would accomplish this. Thus, Biden was able to get away with calling Trump’s claim a dog whistle from the 1950s, whereas, in fact, the claim stems from a very specific, very recent Democratic agenda item which Biden supports and wants to expand.
The same kind of thing happened on the question of Trump getting rid of federal “sensitivity training” and “critical race theory” programs. Trump called the programs in question anti-American propaganda, as indeed they are. But he failed to give concrete examples of their radical content. Thus, with the help of Chris Wallace (if there was any doubt as to whom Wallace supports, it vanished early tonight), Biden was able to make it look like Trump is against sensitivity to matters of race.
Speaking of race, Trump failed to present his usual case about how well African-Americans have fared during his administration. The only accomplishment he touted regarding race was the leniency for felons legislation.
He was right to tout this. Having helped put a terrible policy in place, he might as well seek political gain from it. And Trump likely scored points by pointing to Biden’s legislative efforts in the 1990s that increased the incarceration of Blacks.
But there was much more Trump could have said to help himself with black voters. And he made no pitch for the Latino vote.
Trump had a similar problem with the portion of the debate regarding the Wuhan coronavirus. His main defense of his response was to say that lots of Democratic governors have praised it. That may be true, but Trump should have said more about why he deserves the praise. He did mention the production of ventilators, but there was much more he could have said about the federal effort to help states combat the virus and its effects.
On the personal side, both men were nasty. Biden was probably the nastier of the two. He called Trump a liar, a racist, and a clown. But Trump may have seemed nastier because he interrupted Biden so frequently. Biden was nastier, but Trump was more obnoxious.
Trump may have hoped that Biden would wilt under the pressure of the onslaught, but Biden didn’t.
I think, then, the debate was either a draw or a Biden win. It probably needed to be a Trump win.
As I discussed here, most incumbent presidents lose the first debate, but go on to win the election. But the incumbents to whom this applies weren’t behind in the polls by around 6 points, as Trump is
The debate left me mildly depressed. I take solace only from the fact that my assessment of the performances might not be shared by the voters who will decide the election.
UPDATE: I’ve heard that participants in a snap poll conducted by Telemundo thought, by a margin of nearly 2-1, that Trump won the debate. So maybe the president did gain ground with Latinos.
I don’t know how much stock to put in a poll like that, but I was happy to hear about it.