Donald Trump’s attack lines hadn’t been working. His campaign going into Thursday’s debate with Joe Biden was flailing and failing. He had to come up with something to change the trajectory. A substantive new policy announcement signalling a course correction. A compelling agenda for the next four years which, amazingly, he had yet to provide.
He didn’t do it. Exercising more impulse control, he gave a performance markedly superior to the ragefest that was his first debate. He wasn’t the crybaby president, casting blame on everyone else for the country’s woes as he has done so often lately. While reliably preposterous with some of his claims, he was for the most part civil, coherent and on point.
But it wasn’t enough, particularly given the astute showing of Mr. Biden, who was alert, in command of facts and quick in negating the President’s bombardments with some rapier-like thrusts.
The upshot saw no big gains for Mr. Trump, no big turn in the race’s momentum, thus moving his campaign closer to doom’s doorstep.
The besieged President likely reinforced support in his base, but that base isn’t large enough to win. He had to broaden his appeal, particularly to female voters, who are rejecting him by a wide margin. But there was no evidence he did so.
With his imposing lead in the polls, Mr. Biden is now well positioned to run out the clock.
Given the Trump track record, particularly on the coronavirus, Mr. Biden had more potent ammunition to draw on.
When Mr. Trump claimed the country had rounded the corner on the virus and that Americans were learning to live with it, Mr. Biden reared back and delivered a haymaker. They’re not learning to live with it, he said. “They’re learning to die with it.”
When the President made the wild assertion that he’s “the least racist person in the room,” Mr. Biden said that on the contrary, “he pours fuel on every racist fire … He has a dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”
Mr. Trump got in some piercing strikes of his own. On the environment, when Mr. Biden said he “would transition from the oil industry” because “the oil industry pollutes significantly,” the President pounced. Referencing big energy-producing states, he said “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma? Ohio?”
On racial inequality, he battered Mr. Biden, noting the Democrat has been in government for 47 years and “he never did a thing except in 1994 when he did such harm to the Black community” with his crime bill.
The three major election issues are the virus, health care and the economy. Mr. Trump’s strongest card is the economy. He delivered some blows, saying all his opponent does “is talk about shutdowns,” but wasn’t able to make the economy the focus of the debate.
His big problem in the well-moderated 90-minute clash was that he had nothing new to say. His boasts and accusations were same old, same old.
He spent too much time in trying to impugn Mr. Biden and his son Hunter for alleged corrupt business dealings with foreign governments. “Malarkey,” Biden responded, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life.”
Better was Mr. Trump’s badgering his opponent for being a career politician who talked a big game but had little to show for all his years in Washington. “I’m not a typical politician,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s why I got elected.”
Surprisingly, he didn’t get the opportunity to boast of his Supreme Court appointments, a big prize for conservatives, or to attack his opponent for his dodging the question of whether he would change the court’s numerical makeup. Before the debate, Mr. Biden lamely punted the issue, saying he would appoint a commission to study court reform.
Where Mr. Biden scored well was on the character issue. It wasn’t hard to do given the shameful manner in which Mr. Trump has run the Oval Office.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” noted Mr. Biden. A restoration, he said, of honesty, of decency. “You know who he is,” he said of the man standing next to him. “You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honour and telling the truth.”
Debate reaction suggested there was no clear winner which, considering his lead, meant Mr. Biden had a good evening. Changing the course of the race was a tall order for Mr. Trump, given that almost 50 million Americans have already voted and that, according to pollsters, only about three percent of the population is undecided.
While Mr. Trump fared much better in this confrontation, the most meaningful debate was the first one three weeks ago. He was a disaster that night, his performance sending his campaign into a tailspin. This debate came too late for him to recover. He needs more than a draw. And he barely got that.
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