The debate was a remarkable example of the fact that Donald Trump, the most self-serving man in America, doesn’t know how to do himself any favors.
For the first ten or twelve minutes of the debate, he was walking away with it—Trumpy, sure, but in control and surprisingly reasonable-sounding. If he had kept that up for the whole night as Joe Biden dodged questions about court-packing schemes, couldn’t figure out whether he supported or opposed the Green New Deal, and attempted to brazen his way through the undisputed facts about his son’s business dealings, Trump might have been able to make a plausible case that his administration delivered a strong economy (that’s presidential superstition, but this is how we talk about these things now) that was producing some pretty impressive numbers until the epidemic, and that his administration responded strongly to the coronavirus by halting flights from China, for which he was called a hysterical xenophobe. (Which, of course, he is.) There would be a lot of bull in that, of course, but it would be a basically defensible case, and one that would have been relatively easy to sell with the economy making a faster recovery than most had expected.
Trump’s goal seems to have been something different: to establish that Biden is too diminished and weak to do the job. Hence the schoolyard antics. It probably doesn’t matter (because debates rarely change anybody’s mind), but Trump didn’t need to do that: Biden was always going to do it for him. But if we assume that there are some genuine on-the-fence and persuadable voters, this was the wrong way to reach them—because people who are going to be snookered by that kind of dumb, posturing bluster already are voting for Trump. The people who think Biden is senescent and doddering, and who are voting based on that, already are Trump voters.
Even the softball question about white supremacists he couldn’t quite get right: “Stand by”? If Trump had a lick of wit about him, he might have said: “White nationalism and anti-Semitism? You know I live in New York, right? I live there on purpose, and it’s a terrible way to surround yourself with conservative white Protestants. Proud Boys? What do I have do to with these low-rent nobodies?”
And who is advising Trump on health care? When Biden knocked him for his lack of a “comprehensive plan,” he insisted that he has one, which, of course, he doesn’t. He should have acted like the businessman he plays on television and run with it: “You’re right, Joe, we’re not pursuing any sweeping, national health-care legislation. There won’t be any Rose Garden signing ceremony for ‘Trumpcare.’ We have a divided government and no real consensus on the issue, and trying to remake the health-care system at large without consensus and buy-in doesn’t work, as you, of all people, should know. That’s why Obamacare has failed. Most of your own party today disagrees with you about health-care policy, and most Democrats are closer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders on this than they are to you. And that’s why your comprehensive plan isn’t going to amount to squat. Instead of something like that, my administration is making discrete reforms when and where we can—the individual mandate, veterans’ care, and drug prices—which may not have the allure of a grand scheme but which might actually make life a little better for a few million Americans, especially the elderly and veterans.”
But, derka-derka worked for him in 2016. So, who knows?
The problem for Joe Biden, emphasized last night, is that there is a difference between the candidate he has been for most of this race—“Not Donald Trump”—and the one he has to be for the last part of it.