Neither slippery Biden nor frenetic Trump moves the needle
President Trump got one thing right in the final debate: Joe Biden is a politician. And it showed. Biden relied on his politician’s training with practiced lines, comebacks — I think he said, “Come on!” about half a dozen times — and artful dodges. That training was beneficial as Biden was able to wriggle out of a few tough spots. Trump’s amateurism showed as he stepped on his own points and missed key opportunities.
The sum and substance? Trump needed to make up ground and didn’t, while Biden — overall — edged Trump on points.
Unlike the first debate in which Biden’s flat refusal to answer the court-packing question paved the way for opposition to Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to fizzle, this debate yielded nothing that looks particularly lasting.
Too much Trump for his own good
Trump continues to make two key mistakes; he answers the questions, and he talks over his own lines.
One of the great unreported facts in politics is that Trump is the only politician who actually addresses the questions asked. Plenty of people don’t like the answers, and he often is in his own reality, but he rarely does the long-winded dodge that all serious politicians learn (Mike Pence is great at it.) As a result, Trump gets into trouble heading down the moderator’s or reporter’s path rather than making his own points. He does pivot away from uncomfortable issues, like he did with child separation, but his mistake is talking about the difficult issue in the first place.
Trump gets frenetic on stage, trying to get in as many points and criticisms as possible, which ends up crowding out his strong stuff. He did not really address health care, which is a top issue for independents. And he should have lasered in on Biden not pressing Pelosi to approve the current stimulus deal that is on the table. Instead, he made the point once and then wasted time complaining about bailing out Democratic-run state and local governments.
Trump missed several opportunities to blunt criticism and even gain an advantage. When addressing his personal taxes in the first debate he made a powerful point that his low tax was perfectly legal under a tax system Joe Biden helped craft. It is inexplicable that he would drop that in favor of the prepayment argument. Trump also failed to point out that Obamacare specifically prohibits drug price controls and that several drug companies raised prices significantly during the Obama Administration.
Trump also has a few weird hobbyhorses that no one else cares about. Why on earth was he wasting time on a tangent about small windows in retrofitted buildings? His first point about China, Russia, and India getting a free ride in the Paris Accords was a strong one, but he spent more time on his window rant.
Trump has legitimate room for complaint on media bias, but it turns out that Kristen Welker did an even-handed job. On three occasions Trump burned up time pressing for a tough question for Biden that was already on Welker’s agenda.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Trump is that he fails to comprehend that the home viewer is not following current events closely. Trump’s hits on Biden and the allegations of corruption skipped over important information. He really needed to calmly explain the accusations. I think most undecided voters were left in a bit of a fog. On Biden’s climate policy he said that “AOC plus three” authored it, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). I doubt more than a few percent of the audience knew who he was talking about.
Trump made a rookie mistake of trying to cram in too much language and too many points, which meant less explanation to a general public that simply does not follow the news so closely.
Biden holds his own
Meanwhile, Biden relied on his 50-plus years of political training and discipline. Instead of getting drawn into detailed arguments over accusations of family corruption, Biden just made flat denials. There may be contradictory statements in his record, but he knows that few viewers will take the time to dig in — and the mainstream media so detests Trump they are not about to call Biden out on anything so technical.
Biden carved out opportunities to emphasize labor union support — a group that gave Trump key support in 2016. Biden made a flat claim that a $15 per hour minimum wage will not cost jobs (the research is mixed), but still offered small business aid. Biden painted his proposed policies as all benefits and no costs. Biden got in a few hits on Trump being potentially compromised with Russia and China that Trump parried pretty well, but which definitely took the edge off the family corruption attack.
Biden took a few opportunities to make the standard plea for unity — being a president, senator, governor, etc. for all the people. After 50 years in politics, he could say those lines in his sleep. And that really covers the Biden performance — standard political fare.
The public may not have been fooled. Veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group considered Biden “vague,” “unspecific,” and “elusive.” But even Luntz considered the debate a tie; Trump needed more.
The media have been clamoring for politics to return to some sort of civility and normalcy. We did see that in this debate — canned lines, repetition, empty bromides, and dodging questions. On that score, Biden definitely delivered.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.