Thursday night, two networks offered a choice at 8 p.m.: Town halls with former Vice President Joe Biden on ABC; and with President Donald J. Trump on NBC. If you could watch only one, which would it be?
Me? Trump, of course, to maximize the chance of seeing or hearing something that would make my head explode.
But Your Favorite Columnist watched both, thanks to the miracle of the DVR.
Trump first. He was sharp, focused, and direct in his remarks. He smiled a lot and remembered to talk about some of his accomplishments, in addition to the economy — such as job growth and fantastic unemployment numbers before coronavirus, which he still blames on China, and criminal justice reform.
Mostly he was calm and collected, playing Doctor Jekyll, unlike his Mr. Hyde persona against Joe Biden. He occasionally sparred with NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie, who hectored him into possibly breaking news during the 60 minutes.
He all but admitted the $421 million debt reported by The New York Times when he said, “It’s a tiny percentage of my net worth,” and none is owed to Russia. He complained that the IRS treats him badly.
Guthrie challenged him to release his tax returns and he gave the familiar response that he is under audit, and she said being under audit doesn’t mean you can’t release them.
Under COVID-19 questioning, Trump said, “I’m OK with masks,” which he has said before, but at the same time said two people in the Kamala Harris campaign got sick, and they always wear masks. He seems incapable of making a flat declaration that face masks are good, and that is one of the things his acolytes love about him — he won’t be backed into a corner by Political Correctness, or by medical advice.
One of his favorite tactics is to feign ignorance, which allows his critics to suggest it’s not an act.
Guthrie challenged him to denounce white supremacy, which he has done before, but always with an unseen asterisk, it seems. Instead of a flat repudiation of racism, he wanted to know why Guthrie doesn’t ask Biden about Antifa.
The only way to make the questions stop is to make a flat declaration, without a sneer. Just plain and simple, he should say, “As I have said before, I condemn white supremacy, racism, bigotry and hate of all types.”
He could have made a declaration like that about QAnon, but instead he feigned(?) ignorance. As president he should know this is a conspiracy organization that pushes stories that Democrats are blood-drinking, pedophile Satanists.
Guthrie asked Trump why he retweeted something from QAnon that said Biden orchestrated a plot to assassinate Seal Team 6 to cover up the hoax that it had killed Osama bin Laden.
“I’ll put it out there,” Trump said, explaining it was a retweet, as if that absolves him from responsibility. “People can decide for themselves.”
Guthrie nearly fell off her stool and delivered the line of the night. “I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”
There was more, but I have to leave space for Uncle Joe, carried by ABC from Philadelphia, moderated by George Stephanopoulos, who had to be thinking about the town hall hosted by NBC’s Lester Hold that was criticized for taking questions from about 13 Democrats, and three others. It was a too-friendly affair.
This one was very civil, with Biden as soft-spoken Mister Rogers, but Stephanopoulos pressed several times, trying to pin Biden down on packing the U.S. Supreme Court, which he had opposed in the past.
If the Republicans vote to seat Judge Amy Coney Barrett before election day, Biden said, “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on.”
Stephanopoulos was not satisfied with that goo.
“No matter what answer I give you,” complained Biden, “if I say it, that’s the headline tomorrow.”
That’s true and it’s also true politicians almost always want to own tomorrow’s headline (unless they suspect what they want to do is unpopular).
Pressed by Stephanopoulos, Biden said he would announce his decision before Election Day, “depending on how they handle this,” meaning Barrett.
Put it out there, snap it back.
During the 90-minute appearance, he was focused, showing a command of detail, and stuttering a couple of times. He clearly is not the doddering dementia daddy who can barely speak that the right-wing noise machine says he is.
He said his tax increases (on the wealthy) will add jobs and to the GDP, he will not ban fracking, he will mandate neither vaccines nor mask wearing, if elected, but use powers of persuasion.
I caught what some might see as a gaffe. When he was asked if he would be vindictive in victory, he said the author of a book about presidents said he doubted Biden was Irish because he doesn’t hold a grudge. Some — not me — would take that as a slur.
He said the 1994 crime bill, which he helped author, was “a mistake,” even though it had been backed by the Congressional Black Caucus and Black mayors and halved the crime rate, because it also led to high rates of Black incarceration.
He would not defund police, but get them more money and social workers, and promised to reverse Trump’s executive orders that targeted gays and transgender people.
Unlike last time, Biden did not look directly into the camera, but rather to people asking the questions.
I am hoping Trump and Biden face each other next week. We need another dose.