But Trump may have done well to pursue that narrower focus
It’s uncomfortable watching the President trying to be polite, because it makes him so uncomfortable. And he also bumbled when asked to directly address the American public and tell them what his aspirations are for a second term, because he just doesn’t do that well.
Overall, the debate was almost a mannered affair. And the two minutes of uninterrupted time afforded to each candidate with the other’s mic being cut off during that time—something I thought would never work—actually did.
And while Trump bent, he never fully blew his top or went completely unhinged. Which was his biggest problem after the first debate. When even some staunch Trump supporters were telling me they really disliked the crudeness and complete incivility of the President’s behavior. So did he redeem himself in their eyes with this performance? Chances are he did. While there was still plenty of crazy on the President’s part, wavering supporters were more likely looking for a reason to forgive. More so than a reason to harden their distaste for his earlier tactics.
Trump was at his weakest addressing the COVID-19 crisis, retreating to vague promises, no real plans, and claiming the U.S. is doing no worse than anybody else. When clearly by almost any measure it is, mainly because of his lack of leadership. But this was first up in the debate, so by the end you might have almost forgotten about it.
Biden also did well parrying Trump’s craziest conspiracy theories about Biden’s son. Which also came mostly early in the debate. None of that went anywhere. But as we’ve said before, we don’t know how many people really care about any of that who aren’t already in Trump’s column.
Kind of a draw in terms of “reaching across the aisle”: seemed a bit rich for Trump to slam Biden for complaining about a Republican Congress shutting him and President Obama down, after he’d just been bellyaching about Nancy Pelosi.
But where Trump did seem to land blows, at least better than in the first debate and in his interim Town Hall, was in making sharp criticism of Biden’s plans on energy and the economy. And without having to provide any substantive plans of his own. Except a commitment to “crystal clear water”, which means nothing, but is something he obviously loves to say.
Meanwhile, Biden’s meandering answers, especially about energy policy, specifically moving from oil to renewables, isn’t going to do him any favors in Texas, where he might not have had a real shot at winning anyway. Nor Pennsylvania, which is as close to a must-win as there is for both him and Trump.
So Biden’s got some work to do there. Biden also neglected to mention something he almost always brings up: that he rescued the auto industry back in the Great Recession, and really had to fight Republicans who didn’t want to spend the money to get that done.
I’m not exactly sure how Biden emphasizing clean energy over and over again helps him a lot. Partly because it means significant change. With a vision behind it, yes. But big maybe scary stuff, or at least Trump successfully made it sound that way. And people tend to be scared of change, especially if they don’t understand what it’ll mean for them.
Did Biden figure going harder on the environment would spur more progressive voters to get out and vote for him? Maybe. But I’m not sure if Trump loses, that’s going to be who determined the outcome of the election. I think more likely it’ll be people who voted for Trump last time and switched. People who expected or hoped for something different out of Trump, and did not imagine the country would turn out the way it has under his Presidency. But maybe they’ll figure they can continue to live with the current degree of crazy when presented with uncertainty of a different sort.
Which gets us back to Trump’s almost remarkably specific focus on states like Pennsylvania, where he did make a strong case for why Biden’s plans might seem like a bit too much. Again, without being compelled to offer any plan of his own except magically getting things back to the way they were before.
Maybe I’m not giving people in Pennsylvania enough credit. Definitely hope I’m wrong about this.