The United States is now so politically dysfunctional that it cannot pull off a presidential debate. Instead of tuning in to the debate that should have taken place on Thursday night, the American people had to choose between watching the source of that dysfunction, Republican President Donald Trump, on NBC, or his challenger, Joe Biden, on ABC.
I chose to watch Biden because I was interested in whether he could rise above the morass.
He did, with a calm, cool, and strikingly effective evening of dialogue that raised its voice only to shout the word “presidential.” The former vice president took his shots at the current president. Recalling journalist Bob Woodward’s revelation that Trump said he played down the severity of the Covid-19 threat because he didn’t want to create “panic,” Biden said, “Americans don’t panic; he panicked.” And the Democrat added, pointedly, “He didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market.”
In fact, Biden’s primary message was that if elected, he won’t panic. “It is the presidential responsibility to lead,” said Biden, who kept returning to the message: “The words of a president matter…. What a president says is important…. I think it matters what we say…”
What Biden said about the economic recovery that he will have to manage if he prevails on November 3 was good. Biden’s still no Bernie Sanders, but he sounded reasonably progressive and populist when he explained his promise to repeal Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Doing so, the Democrat explained, is critical to getting the resources needed for 2021 and beyond. “If you raise the corporate tax just back to 28 percent, which is a fair tax, you’d raise $1,300,000,000 by that one act,” said Biden, who outlined a plan to tax the rich in order “to invest a great deal of that money into infrastructure and green infrastructure.”
That was a solid answer to an important question. So, too, was a response in which Biden acknowledged that his vote for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was a mistake. So, too, was a nuanced discussion of foreign policy that concluded with one of the candidate’s best lines of the night: “We find ourselves in a position where we’re more isolated in the world than we ever have been. ‘America first’ has made America alone.”
The Democrat came prepared, and it showed. Unfortunately, some of Biden’s preparation was for avoiding questions. He was still frustratingly cautious and prone to compromise. He skirted necessary inquires about judicial reform, including expansion of the US Supreme Court to restore the balance that has been undone by the theft of high court seats by Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Pressed by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos on the issue of “court packing,” Biden’s nonresponse was embarrassingly political: “No matter what answer I gave you, if I say it, that’s the headline tomorrow.” That was frustrating, as was Biden’s ridiculous claim that if elected, he would have “seven or eight Republican senators”—“there are so many things that we really do agree on”—working with him on major issues in McConnell’s chamber of horrors. And Biden’s answer to a question about banning fracking was flat wrong on the facts and on the vision. It was a turnoff to precisely the young voters that Democrats need to win by margins sufficient to secure a true governing majority.
Yet, for all the frustrations, Biden won the debate that was not a debate. There wasn’t a knockout blow. Biden prevailed on style points. And that means a lot in a year when focus groups and polls tell us that the country is weary of the chaos that Trump was still stirring over on NBC.
Biden acknowledged that weariness, and provided an antidote.
Taking questions from Stephanopoulos and skeptical voters from the battleground state of Pennsylvania, the man who served 36 years in the Senate and eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president was steadily reassuring.
Early in the evening, Biden faced a tough question from a Black student who referenced a controversial radio-interview comment that Biden had to apologize for in May. Cedric Humphrey asked, “Besides ‘you ain’t black,’ what do you have to say to young black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?”
Biden answered in detail, with a focus on the message that “we have to be able to put Black Americans in a position to be able to gain wealth.” When Biden finished, Stephanopoulos asked the young voter if had heard what he was hoping for. Humphrey said, “I think so.” Stephanopoulos was ready to move on, but the former vice president was not. He kept trying to make a connection, trying to answer the question he had posed at the start of the exchange: “Am I worthy of your vote? Can I earn your vote?”
That was the point. While Trump was desperate, Biden was closing the deal.
The Democrat was not everything that he should be, but he was communicating that he is ready to replace Donald Trump.
That is a vital case to make not just on a would-be debate night when Trump didn’t show but in a broader moment when the United States has been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic and the mass unemployment that extends from it, when an outcry over police violence and systemic racism has been aggressively rebuffed by the president of the United States, when the evidence of a surging climate crisis is overwhelming states from California to Florida, and when budget priorities are so out of whack that the Pentagon is fully funded and millions of Americans are going hungry.
Trump’s opting out of a presidential debate when Americans are already voting, and when Election Day is just two weeks away, gave Biden an opportunity to confirm that he is ready to take charge of the country that most Americans now, if the polls are to be believed, want him to lead. Trump got his platform on NBC and used it as he has every media platform he’s been afforded since 2015: to tell lies, create chaos, and divide the country in order to create a political advantage for himself. No surprises there. Just more ranting and raving about mail-in ballots, Hillary Clinton, and scrapping the Affordable Care Act. Another night, another refusal to release his taxes. Another chance to denounce QAnon, another dance around that question and many others. Trump was Trump.
What mattered Thursday night was that Biden was Biden. Composed. Compelling. Comfortable enough with himself to answer a question about what a defeat would say about the country. “Well,” he mused, “it could say that I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job, but I think—I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethically, and religiously at odds with one other as it appears the president wants us to be.”
With that answer, Biden confirmed for any doubtful viewer that he is the antithesis of Trump. NBC hosted a combative president who desperately mustered false bravado in the hope of keeping his dwindling base enthused. ABC hosted a confident challenger, who calmly concluded, “I think the people are ready, they understand what’s at stake. I’m going to take care of those who voted against me as well as those who voted for me. For real. That’s what presidents do. We’ve got to heal this nation.”