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Biden Lets Trump Hang Around

Tuesday night’s debate was a buzzkill for those who hope the Democrats have it in the bag.

Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

It was, in some ways, the most anticipated political moment in four years.

Donald Trump, who rose from political neophyte to national preeminence on the debate stage, appeared again Tuesday opposite an opponent. For the most of the faithful, the greatest show on Earth (judged by the Nielsen ratings) didn’t disappoint. CNN swiftly labeled the affair a “s**tshow” and a “disgrace.” Main anchor Jake Tapper said “the American people lost tonight. … That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a trainwreck.” 

True to form, it was gloves off from the president. “There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump told his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. “You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me. … Forty-seven years you’ve done nothing.” 

For anyone paying attention the last five years — since Trump descended that escalator in Manhattan — it’s hard to shake the feeling that this all somehow plays into Trump’s hands: media shrieks of horror, outlaw tactics, the laying to waste of all convention.  

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said, in perhaps the night’s iconic line. The problem for Biden? Trump would, of course, not shut up. Desperate, probably losing, the Republican presidential nominee was no holds barred. Referring to the Coronavirus: “But I’ll tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job that we did. You don’t have it in your blood. You could have never done that job.”

Speaking with those in the president’s orbit following the battle royale, the only question was if any of this works. 

Was the, frankly, masculine show of force the appropriate play here? Slap-dashing showmanship may have thrilled the MAGA faithful, but what about the suburban women leaking from his coalition? “Women hated it,” a source close to the president warned. And what about the working class voters who respected Biden enough to vote for him the last time he was on a ticket (and then voted for Trump four years later)? 

Reeling from depression, coronavirus and the drip-drip of Trump’s personal scandals, the only real question is: does America really want more of this?

Moderator Chris Wallace — who couldn’t win and was panned on the left for weakness, and on the right for interrupting the sitting president — tried to drill Trump down on ties to white extremism. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, but then quickly pivoted: “But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” Biden, at one point, said “antifa is an idea,” something he also frequently says about America, drawing an equivalency sure to make those allergic to extralegal violence queasy.  

It was and will be a theme: Biden as a tool of the left, a “trojan horse” for — though Trump would not use this term — the successor ideology. Biden, entertainingly, sought to counteract this impression: “Right now, I am the Democratic Party.” L’etat c’est moi.

Given Biden’s reasonable personal favorability ratings, this tactic is probably Trump’s best shot: a show of force, and a lean on the strengths of incumbency with a rebounding economy. It was probably the most favorable verdict plausible for the president that most Democrats resorted to essentially working the refs after the debate.  

At one point, Biden invoked his deceased son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer late in the Obama years. “My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there. He spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star,” Biden said. “He got the Conspicuous Service Medal,” he continued, in a slip-up. “He was not a loser. He was a patriot and the people left behind there were heroes,” Biden said, referencing Trump’s reported remarks denigrating American service.  

But Biden let the moment pass. Trump sought clarification on which son Biden was speaking about — “I’m talking about my son, Beau Biden,” the Democratic nominee said — and then proceeded to steamroll him.

 “Hunter got thrown out of the military,” Trump said of Biden’s more troubled progeny. “He didn’t have a job until you became vice president, and once you became vice president, he made a fortune in China, in Moscow and various other places. … He made a fortune.”

Many will wish Wallace intervened. But so could have Biden. 

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the Biden White House and the future of the Republicans. He has reported for The National Interest, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Washington Examiner, UnHerd, the Spectator, among others. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow, and has been a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Claremont Institute. He is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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