Biden 1, Trump 0 in The First Round
September 30, 2020
President Donald J. Trump blew himself up in the first presidential debate with Joe Biden, in a remarkable act of self-sabotage. Trump is trailing in the polls, and he should have focused on appealing to moderate Republican women in the suburbs, minorities and swing voters. But his savage, brutish behavior did nothing to endear him to those groups. Trump missed the chance to regain momentum and cut Biden’s lead.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden kept his cool, despite Trump’s constant interruptions and insults. Biden is not a brilliant debater, and he stumbled occasionally. Biden should have made stronger, clearer statements on climate change and re-opening the economy.
But Biden’s missteps were minor, and he demonstrated a much sharper grasp of the facts and issues than Trump did. Democrats who had been anxious about how Biden would perform can breathe a sigh of relief. Biden came across as decent and competent…and certainly not senile or befuddled.
From the get-go, Trump tried to browbeat and intimidate Biden and Chris Wallace, the moderator from Fox News. Both campaigns had agreed that each candidate could speak for two minutes, after which his opponent could engage in rebuttal. Yet Trump immediately interrupted Biden at the beginning of the debate, and he almost never let Biden finish his remarks, throughout the evening.
Trump may have thought that he would seem strong and tough. Instead, he came across as a bully and a thug. That may have fired up his base, but that’s irrelevant; he already has their support. Trump’s tactics in the debate undoubtedly backfired, particularly with the women voters in the suburbs who have been turned off by his personality. They deserted the Republican Party in droves during the 2018 midterm elections. Donald Trump gave them no reason to return to the fold.
Getting under Trump’s Skin
Joe Biden has an Irish temper, and Trump may have thought that his nonstop insults would goad Biden into making a damaging outburst. But Biden did not take the bait. Instead, he turned the tables on Trump, getting under his skin. Biden knew how to punch Trump’s buttons. Early in the debate, Biden called Trump “Donald”, which was guaranteed to set him off. When Trump was running the mighty Trump Organization, with its 120 or so employees, he insisted that his subordinates refer to him as “Mr. Trump” or “sir”. Biden treated the President with disdain throughout the debate, calling him a liar, a racist and “the worst President in history”. The President’s supporters were no doubt infuriated by Biden’s disrespectful attitude toward a sitting President, but it worked. Trump became increasingly unhinged during the evening. As Biden was criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus—particularly when the President suggested injecting bleach into patients—Biden remarked, “That wasn’t smart”.
Trump, who is notoriously insecure about his intelligence, became visibly upset and shot back, “Joe, you’re not smart, you were one of the lowest in your class” at college. So instead of defending his record on the virus, Trump launched a petty ad hominem attack on Biden...who ignored the insult. That’s hardly the way for the President to convince swing voters that he can deal with the pandemic.
In the past, this observer would have lamented such a lack of decorum on the part of any Presidential candidate, Democratic or Republican. But Trump set the tone for the debate, and Biden was wise to punch back. In 2016, Hillary Clinton made a huge mistake when Trump stalked her on the debate stage and she did not respond. Clinton should have turned to him and said, “Back off, creep!” Instead, she looked weak. Biden understood that he had to fight back against the bully. Biden did that effectively and showed that he was strong and confident. That was a good way to rally his troops.
Trump’s Unforced Errors
Trump also made a lot of unforced errors, which should cost him support with key groups of voters. Let’s focus on three blunders.
Biden hit Trump hard for suing to revoke the Affordable Care Act and not having a plan to replace it. Biden said, “There are 100 million Americans with pre-existing conditions” and warned that they would lose their coverage if the ACA were overturned. Trump responded, “No, there aren’t, where did you get that number?”
But Biden was correct. So the President was either lying, to minimize the problem, or he did not know what he was talking about. Either way, if you have a pre-existing condition, or one of your relatives does, Trump gave you no reason to trust him on this issue. That’s important, because health care is one of voters’ chief concerns. And, as Biden pointed out, the 7,000,000 Americans infected with the coronavirus now have a pre-existing condition.
Into the Twilight Zone
Near the end of the debate, Trump ventured into Twilight Zone territory when he continued to insist, without any evidence, that mail-in ballots would lead to “fraud like you’ve never seen”. Chris Wallace pointed out that in 2018, 31 million voters, or 25%, voted by mail—including the President himself—and asked what was wrong with the practice.
Trump should have been prepared for such a question. Instead, Trump dug himself in deeper, saying, “I am urging my supporters to go and watch” the polling places because the Democrats “cheat”. Trump claimed that “ballots are being sold, they’re being dumped in rivers”, which made no sense. The President of the United States sounded like a lunatic, and he seemed to encourage his supporters to intimidate voters.
Helping Biden in Pennsylvania
Trump is lagging in Pennsylvania, which is a must-win for him, so one would have expected him to say positive things about the state. Instead, as Trump was warning darkly about election fraud, he said that “bad things are happening in Philadelphia”.
This was a negative two-fer for Trump. In the 2018 midterms moderate Republican women in the Philadelphia suburbs turned against Trump and voted for Democratic candidates. Trashing their city won’t endear the President to this key group.
In addition, the city of Philadelphia itself has a large Black population, so Trump’s remarks will also alienate many Afro-American voters there. Trump probably did not have much chance with those voters, in any event, but his remark gave them a powerful incentive to turn out and vote against him.
By the way, Philadelphia and its suburbs are the most heavily populated part of the state.
And, of course, Trump’s shout-out to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” won’t exactly boost his appeal to minority voters, in Philadelphia…or Detroit…or Milwaukee.
As David Axelrod, former adviser to Barack Obama, said on CNN after the debate, “Donald Trump may have ended his Presidency tonight”. Here’s hoping…. The Wall Street Democrat