EYES and ears don’t deceive. Americans saw Trump and Biden in live performance in the Fox television debate rather than through a partisan press filter. How they behaved counted as much, or more, than what they said.
There’s no real winner in a shouting match, which is what this became. But Biden decisively allayed many of the persistent doubts about his mental acuity. He put an end to Trump’s ‘sleepy Joe’ meme with verve and aggression.
Trump will need another tack for the rest of this campaign after this very public setback against an opponent of whom he had been openly contemptuous, accusing him of (among other things) hiding in his basement to avoid public scrutiny.
Now we know why Democratic Party leaders have not seemed overly concerned by doubts about 78-year-old Biden’s fitness for the presidency, which have been shared by much of the media.
Biden was confident and coherent. He arrived on stage with a clenched-fist salute whereas Trump looked subdued and slightly furtive. Biden took the initiative, greeting him chummily – ‘How ya doin’, man?’; Trump’s response was mumbled and grudging.
This was not the Trump we’re used to and it presaged what was to come. In the rare moments of silence, Biden jabbed slyly, accusing Trump of yapping and saying dismissively ‘shut up, man’ to show how little intimidated he was.
Neither candidate went beyond repeating his party’s talking points and each shouted over the other, so Americans learned nothing new in terms of political choice. There was no killer blow.
Biden cannily refused to be pinned down on packing the Supreme Court, scrapping the Senate filibuster or law and order, which are central issues. He blamed Trump for the post-Floyd riots.
Americans saw in real time a demonstration of the essential difference between a wily, veteran professional politician and a businessman who went into politics without serving an apprenticeship. Trump did himself no favours by blustering, and at times sounded defensive in response to Biden barbs.
One commentator said that what we saw is ‘Tweet Trump’, the persona that least appeals to the suburban voters, especially women, who gave Democrats their House of Representatives majority in 2018.
Trump boasts about his deal-making acumen. Objectively he still has a record as a successful achiever with regard to the economy – until Covid – and foreign affairs. Biden, on the other hand, is a company man who has nothing positive to his credit after almost half a century in Washington. But he knows how to play the game better.
Covid has changed everything. What matters first of all is whether Trump or Biden will manage the endless crisis better. Americans care about the economy now rather than what it was in 2019. Will they trust Trump or Biden to rebuild it post-Covid? In the latter case, Biden urged Americans not to have faith in what he implied was a circus ringmaster’s vaccine.
The format was wrong. The crowd were sworn to silence and obeyed. The contestants should have been told not to interrupt each other. Trump even got into fights with moderator Chris Wallace who, although a known Democrat, was even-handed. Slanging matches are not informative, which is why appearance was so important and damaging to Trump.
Neither man said anything to provide a news peg. It boils down to what individual Americans with an open mind – if such a creature exists – thought of two performances in what was political theatre.
For Biden it can be said that although he’s still arguably too old for the job, he destroyed, at least on this occasion, the idea that his mental powers are in decline.
Trump is not a politico-politician and never will be, but he has a successful executive record despite the unending slanders he’s been subjected to. Americans have to decide whether they want to abandon that in favour of a very Left-wing Democratic Party.
If anyone changed minds last night, it was Biden who performed well above expectations. If it’s any comfort to Trumpists, he did badly in his debates against Hillary and still won. But on the evidence of Tuesday night and polls that give Biden a six per cent lead, beyond the margin of error, the election looks like Biden’s to lose.