In the parallel Biden world, viewers saw a candidate who, far from picking fights, was telling Americans he wanted to avoid them, saying, “We have got to change the nature of the way we deal with one another.” The former vice president savaged Trump for his handling of the pandemic and painted a vision of a White House where a President listens to scientists on simple issues like wearing masks. Freed of Trump’s constant interruptions during the presidential debate, Biden held forth on his plans on everything from health care, foreign affairs, quelling Covid-19 and climate change. He grudgingly and awkwardly promised an answer to his fence-sitting on Supreme Court packing before the election. Compared to Trump’s bristling offenses, Biden’s relaxed, discursive style — and sometimes long and technical arguments — were a reminder that you can take the man out of the Senate, but you can’t take the Senate out of the man.
Trump thought the whole thing was unfair
On NBC, it was immediately obvious that the President would not ditch his belligerent bulldozing, even with his opponent on a different network. This time it was NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie who was in Trump’s sights.
Out of his comfort zone of adoring rally crowds and friendly Fox News interviews, the President did look rather like a candidate who seems to be losing the election, can’t quite understand why and thinks it’s very unfair.
On Covid, when confronted with better performances by other nations, Trump declared a tone deaf victory: “On the excess mortality, we are a winner,” the President said. “It happened because of China. And you have to get that and understand that,” the President said, characteristically trying to deflect scrutiny of his own mistakes that happened long after Beijing failed to alert the rest of the world about the pandemic with appropriate urgency.
Trump’s answer when questioned by Guthrie about whether he repudiates QAnon conspiracy theorists — who believe Democrats are part of a satanic cult of child abuse — epitomized how extraordinary moments that would be unthinkable in any other presidency are now simply routine.
“But there’s not a satanic pedophile cult being run –” Guthrie said, before she was interrupted by the President.
“I have no idea. I know nothing about that,” Trump replied. “You don’t know that?” Guthrie asked, before the President responded: “No, I don’t know that and neither do you know that.”
The exchange revealed a fundamental truth about Trump’s political career. His clash with a major mainstream news anchor in itself will delight supporters who elected him to destroy Washington’s status quo. His refusal to adopt what his fans would see as a politically correct answer on White supremacy and QAnon is germane to his appeal to millions of Americans. But to cement that bond, he adopts ever more extreme and false positions that are guaranteed to alienate at least half the country and appear incompatible with any traditional notion of presidential behavior and duty.
Biden seeks consensus in an age of acrimony
Biden, who like Trump is in his 70s, came across on ABC like another kind of uncle. He was friendly, courteous and a throwback to a less contentious era with his talk of activating democracy by seeking consensus with Republicans who set out to thwart the Obama administration from its earliest hours. Biden was essentially offering Americans something that no one — Trump haters or partisans — have experienced for three-and-a-half years: a calm hand on the helm, peace and quiet and a president who is not inside everyone’s heads from dawn to dusk.
For those minded to agree with Biden, his arguments that Trump is an insult to America’s democratic soul, runs counter to traditional national values and has taken the country on a self-destructive ride that is tearing it apart, seemed to be borne out by the President’s antics on the other network.
Biden accused Trump of being more concerned with the stock market than the pandemic and said if he is elected, he would lean on governors, mayors and council presidents to mandate mask wearing. With Trump’s nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett on a glide path to a Supreme Court confirmation that would cement a 6-3 conservative majority, Biden again declined to give an unequivocal answer on whether he would seek to redress what liberals regard as two stolen seats on the bench by expanding the size of the court.
Biden said he was “not a fan” of court packing but said that his position will depend on how Republicans — who are going full steam ahead to seat Barrett before the election — “handled” the issue.
Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the rather fundamental question of whether voters have a right to know what he thinks he said: “They do have a right to know where I stand.”
“So you’ll come out with a clear position before Election Day?” Stephanopoulos asked.
Asked whether he had heard what he wanted to hear, the questioner responded: “I think so,” promoting Biden to jump in: “Well there’s a lot more if you want to, if you’re going to hang out afterwards, I’ll tell you more.”
It’s all about the rules
The candidates’ answers about undergoing personal Covid-19 tests captured the essence of the evening. Trump refused to say whether he had honored an agreement to post a negative test before the first presidential debate in Cleveland, which happened several days before he was airlifted to hospital.
“Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” Trump said, strengthening the hand of critics who believe he may have been contagious for several days before his positive test but carried on election activity regardless, potentially exposing many people.
Biden, seeking a clear contrast with the President, said he had been tested before Thursday’s town hall.
“If I had not passed that test I didn’t want to come here and expose somebody. It’s just decency to be able to determine whether or not you are clear,” he said, empathizing with “guys with the cameras, Secret Service guys.”
Ahead of the final debate next week, the former vice president said: “I am going to abide what the (presidential debate) commissions call for.”
At its most basic level, that is what the election is all about. It’s a contest between a candidate who plays by the rules and an incumbent President whose entire life shows he doesn’t think everyone else’s rules apply to him.