I got something massively wrong about the second (and final) presidential debate of 2020. I thought that my frantic live-tweeting covered every important aspect of the Thursday night event. Upon reading the transcript, I realized there was lots more to say.
Let’s start with the 30,000-foot picture. There’s no question that President Trump performed more effectively than in the first debate. Even his most uncritical admirers, like Fox News talker Sean Hannity, have conceded as much (Check out the video of his post-debate show, in which he acknowledges that long-time Republican political operative Ari Fleischer was right in faulting Mr. Trump’s first debate performance as too overheated.)
But there are plenty of questions left unanswered about the second debate’s impact on the Presidential race. For the record, I’m sticking with the assessment I offered after the first debate: Given his lead even in most battleground state polls, because the Trump campaign and other Trumpers (including Hannity) had set the bar so low for “Sleepy Joe,” all Biden needed to do was show up and not screw up massively in order to win.
Those battleground polls have tightened somewhat, Biden’s perfectly fine first debate performance raised the bar for the second debate, and I’m far from thinking that the race is over. But I’d still rather be in Biden’s shoes than in Mr. Trump’s. And time keeps running out for the President. All the same, it’s important to remember that we haven’t seen any major post-debate nationwide or battleground polls come out yet, so there’s simply no hard evidence to go on at this point.
The time-is-not-the-President’s-friend point, though, brings up my first new debate-related point: Mr. Trump’s improved performance alone (whether he “won” or not either on points or according to the public), indicates that he erred in rejecting the Commission on Presidential Debate’s offer to hold the second debate virtually, due ostensibly to CCP Virus-related reasons.
Especially if Mr. Trump had by that time begun heeding the advice of supporters urging him to dial it down (which isn’t at all clear), he lost an opportunity to square off again against Biden in real time. And although there’s no adequate on-line substitute for the atmosphere and resulting pressures of in-person encounters, the President did lose a valuable opportunity to reassure voters unnerved – rightly or wrongly – by his first debate tactics.
Getting down to specific points, on Thursday night, two issues really do demand further discussion. First, I might have been mistaken in my tweeted view that the Biden comments on natural gas fracking and energy (and related climate change) policy wouldn’t be terribly important.
I did agree that the former Vice President did nothing to help himself in key energy states like Pennsylvania, where voters might worry that his various positions – and the prominence of staunch fossil fuels opponents in Democratic ranks now – would guarantee relatively rapid closures of the coal mines and gas and oil fields that created so much employment in their regions. But I stated that, because these subjects had been aired so thoroughly already, few energy voters’ minds would be changed.
What I clearly underestimated was the impact of an extended discussion of energy and climate subjects before a nation-wide audience. If I’d been right, why would the Trump campaign have almost immediately put out an ad spotlighting Biden’s assorted statements on these topics. And why would the Biden campaign have spent so much time trying to explain the Biden position?
Looking at the transcript helped me understand why energy- and climate-related anxieties in the energy states might have been elevated by the Biden debate remarks. For on the one hand, the Democratic challenger insisted that he was “ruling out” “banning fracking” and claimed that
“What I will do with fracking over time is make sure that we can capture the emissions from the fracking, capture the emissions from gas. We can do that and we can do that by investing money in doing it, but it’s a transition to that.”
And whereas previously, Biden had responded to a primary debate question about whether fossil fuels would have any place in his prospective administration by declaring “We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those. Any fossil fuel,” on Thursday night, the former Vice President referred to transitioning from “the old oil industry”–presumably to some (undefined) new kind of oil industry.
Nonetheless, it would be reasonable for energy states residents to question these assurances of gradualness and transformation instead of elimination given Biden’s continued contention that “global warming is an existential threat to humanity,” that “we’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to ten years,” and that the energy sector in toto needs “to get to ultimately a complete zero emissions by 2025.” Last time I checked, that’s only five years from now.
Moreover, given the notable split within the Democratic party on climate change and energy issues between progressives and centrists, the Biden statements suggesting that major fossil fuel industries will survive during his administration in some form could depress turnout in their ranks for a candidate who clearly needs to stoke their enthusiasm.
The second set of issues I should have tweeted more about entails crime and race relations. I think Biden deserves a great deal of credit for calling “a mistake” his support for crime bills of the 1980s and 1990s that, in the words of moderator Kristen Welker “contributed to the incarceration of tens of thousands of young Black men who had small amounts of drugs in their possession, they are sons, they are brothers, they are fathers, they are uncles, whose families are still to this day, some of them suffering the consequences.”
He was also correct in pointing out that President Trump – who quite properly pointed to some noteworthy achievements of his administration on behalf of African Americans – took a sweepingly harsh line on crime himself in previous decades.
But two positions taken by Biden should disturb even supporters. First, his argument that “It took too long [during the Obama administration] to get it right. Took too long to get it right. I’ll be President of the United States, not Vice President of the United States,” clearly throws his former boss under the bus. In fact, he also implicitly blamed Obama for the failure to resolve the problem created by children living the United States born to illegal immigrant parents.
The second such position was Biden’s argument that “No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem. They should be going to rehabilitation, not to jail.”
I personally can support this view when it comes to hard drugs. But marijuana? For whose use so many American blacks have been jailed – and so many more than white Americans? (I’m not a big fan of the American Civil Liberties Union these days, but the data in this study are tough to refute.) Mandatory (government-funded?) therapy for potheads? That could use some rethinking.
But like I said at the outset, I expressed views on many other debate-related subjects on my Twitter feed (@AlanTonelson). So there’s no substitute for following there, as well as checking in with RealityChek, for the most up-to-date thinking on the election — as well as everything else under the sun.