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Trump v. Biden Stays Trump v. Biden

On the debate stage, Trump was more demure—and better-received. But he likely failed to have a breakout night.

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

Joe Biden scolded President Trump for coddling dictators, didn’t rule out a second national lockdown, didn’t foreclose on the possibility of steep tax hikes, and didn’t take the bait on Thursday night in Nashville.

The second showdown between the Democratic presidential nominee and Donald Trump was a far more demure affair than the controversial brawl that went down last month. For the incumbent, it showcased to the American people that he had recovered from COVID-19, and was still his old self. As for Biden, the former vice president comported himself like a man who has already made his closing argument.

Trump and his team went into the debate intent on raising hackles over the latest disclosures swirling around Biden’s son, Hunter, which possibly implicate the would-be president himself. A press call led by former Trump official Ric Grenell ahead of Thursday night made clear the campaign’s strategy, with Grenell and company refusing to take any questions not related to Hunter Biden. 

“He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues,” Biden shot back. “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.”

Indeed, there is uneasiness among some in the president’s corner that the emphasis on Hunter Biden has been overdone, and distracts from a more coherent closing argument from Trump. But for Team Trump, it’s personal, with messy financials and personal shots firing all around. 

Trump linked Hunter Biden’s troubles to his business endeavours with China. “That’s a typical political statement,” Trump said of Biden’s defense. “‘Let’s get off the subject of China, let’s talk around sitting around the table.’ Come on, Joe, you can do better.” Biden’s team, on the other hand, has worked to link Trump explicitly to Beijing. 

“Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account?” former President Barack Obama said in Pennsylvania this week, remarking on a recent New York Timesreport. “They would’ve called me Beijing Barry.”

At times, for more seasoned political observers, the debate could be whiplash-inducing. In 2008, it was Obama who was defending reaching out and sitting down with America’s adversaries as necessary measures of diplomacy. Last night, it was Biden, the Democrat, who occupied the establishmentarian lane, attacking Trump for meeting with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un.

Trump defended his record. “North Korea? We’re not in a war,” Trump said. “We have a good relationship. People don’t understand—having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing.” During the handoff between their administrations, Obama warned Trump North Korea would be the most pressing issue he would have to face. But Biden argued the manner in which Trump grappled with Pyongyang had bestowed legitimacy on Kim, agreeing — on this score, at least — with Trump apostates such as John Bolton.

Trump was perhaps most effective when attacking Biden’s political vulnerabilities on fracking in the swing states. “I would transition from the oil industry, yes. … Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly,” Biden said. Trump alleged Biden was hiding the ball. “I never said I opposed fracking,” Biden said, in more unequivocal language than he used in the primary. 

“Joe Biden is probably telling the truth when he says he won’t ‘ban’ fracking,” Steve Molloy argued in the Wall Street Journal this week.“Far more likely is that a Biden administration would end fracking via indirect means, by taking a regulatory nibble here and a legislative bite there.” Trump sought to crib Molloy’s kind of argument. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”

Biden said Trump was all wet on healthcare. “No matter how well you run” Obamacare, Trump contended. “It’s no good.” But he then argued “we’ll have Obamacare but it will be better run,” if his administration loses a pending lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court that would nullify the program. Biden affirmed the Democratic Party principle of healthcare as a right: “People deserve to have affordable health care, period. Period. Period. Period.”

For her part, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC didn’t make herself the show, likely avoiding the critical news cycle that befell Chris Wallace of Fox after the first debate, and CSPAN’s Steve Scully for a debate that never happened. Scully was caught red-handed collaborating with ex-Trump official Anthony Scaramucci, now an activist against the president, and Wallace was attacked as feckless by the left and discourteous to Trump by the right. 

“We’re fighting it and we’re fighting it hard… We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” Trump said of the COVID-19 virus. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight hear this,” Biden responded. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president.” He predicted a “dark winter.”

Trump waved that off and argued he would continue to reject further extreme measures as president. “I don’t know if we’re going to have a dark winter,” the president said. “We’re opening up our country.” Biden replied: “He says … we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.”

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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