Donald Trump needed a knockout in Thursday night’s debate.
Behind in every poll. Apparently abandoned by key 2016 supporters like older Americans and suburban women. Widely panned for his first-debate performance despite succeeding in rattling the challenger. Not gaining traction even given Hunter’s laptop and other October Surprises besetting Bidenites.
The Donald was looking for a turnaround event like The Gipper’s overnight reversal of Jimmy Carter’s lead. (“There you go again.” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”)
Did he get it?
In fact, for more than half the 90 minutes, the crafty Joe Biden of old suddenly reappeared onstage – and as he memorably did with callow Paul Ryan eight years ago, took the Chief Executive to school.
The former vice president seemed no doddering codger in advanced stages of cognitive decline. Not just lucid but razor-sharp, and well-armed on issue-after-issue with zinger lines, he repeatedly used the president’s momentum against him while the usually sure puncher wasted numerous opportunities to land big blows.
From the opening bell, the Delawarean deftly kept the “blame Trump” narrative alive on coronavirus, while slipping away from his previous foot-in-mouth declaration of “shutdown-by-expert” by focusing on re-opening with appropriate preparation. Thinking on his feet, he stung the incumbent, who talked of “learning to live” with the virus, with an insistence that the nation was actually “learning to die with it.” And got out of the president’s way as he tripped over himself backtracking from insults of America’s doctor, Anthony Fauci.
Given a Mack truck-sized opening to corner the Democratic nominee in the Parent Trap created by son Hunter, Trump slipped again, bizarrely charging that the ex-veep personally had received payments directed to his son – providing the challenger the opportunity for a dramatic double take and his perhaps most forceful line of the night: that he had not taken “a penny from a foreign source ever in my life.”
What’s more, Biden skillfully flipped the narrative, luring the president into extended and counterproductive disquisitions on his taxes and a meaningless Middle Kingdom bank account – and proceeded to turn Trump’s triumphs with China into another dead-end presidential defense of his relationship with North Korean “thug” Kim Jong Un.
The Donald got badly pummeled by Barack Obama’s wingman in their toe-to-toe trading of blows on health care, the public option and “socialism” – “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against me, Joe Biden.”
And then failed to jump on two consecutive, potentially game-changing Biden gaffes: first, his assertion that “no one lost their insurance on Obamacare” (“If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” was rated “Lie of the Year” by left-leaning Politifact). Followed shortly thereafter by the onetime Judiciary chair’s fractured civics lesson that the Founders had brilliantly made it possible for the federal government to deficit spend so that it could bail out states.
Just as the president seemed ready to go down for the count, however, he suddenly found his footing – and his form – as the subject turned to immigration. When the one-time no. 2 tried to hold the administration responsible for 500 refugee children separated from their parents, Trump humiliated his opponent for the absurd asseveration that most “catch-and-release” asylum-seekers returned for hearings.
And taunted him with the question “who built the cages?” that once housed youngsters at the border. (Answer: Obama-Biden.)
Suddenly, the president had gained the upper hand. He countered Biden’s familiar cornball riff on “character on the ballot,” by successfully returning to the former Second Family’s corrupt behavior and mocking attempts to turn the laptop into another “Russia, Russia, Russia! hoax.”
The Donald jiu-jitsued one of moderator Kristen Welker’s few biased moments – yet another effort to position him as a racist by raising his Black Lives Matter comments – with a pointed reminder of protestors’ anti-police “pigs-in-a-blanket” chants and a strong (if characteristically hyperbolic) listing of his accomplishments on behalf of minorities.
While Biden got in another solid counterpunch (“dog whistle as big as a foghorn”), Trump adroitly pivoted to the anti-minority outcomes of the former senator’s crime bill and one of his most powerful arguments, the career politician’s weak record of accomplishment during five decades in the nation’s capital.
And he surprisingly and decidedly won subsequent exchanges on environmental issues, pointing to the high price tag and radical left authorship of Biden’s climate platform, promising to post his rival’s previous pledges to deep-six fracking, pinning him down on a commitment to eliminate the oil industry and ridiculing the notion of compelling Chinese adherence to global accords.
Yet the president frittered his momentum on the final question, a softball to both candidates which was practically an invitation to repeat his signature re-election slogan – “the best is yet to come” – and to contrast his brilliant second-term agenda with Biden’s expensive promises.
So despite a strong comeback, the president, to channel Lloyd Bentsen, was no Gipper. But did he do enough to stagger his opponent and better position himself to win?
The final scorecard is in the hands of American voters. But from this commentator’s perspective: a draw. At best.