It’s funny that everybody talks about Joe Biden as the old jalopy in this race, because on Thursday night in Nashville, it was Donald Trump who seemed to be running on fumes.
I don’t mean physically: He had his full repertoire of facial expressions (cocky, kooky, menacing, martyred) and the usual grating bray. I mean metaphorically. I mean politically.
He needed to show voters something different from what he had been showing them over the course of this wretched year, and he just didn’t have it in him.
He needed to part company with his foul temper, but that’s really the only weather left in him. His calmness during the first third or so of the debate gave way to the usual excitability during the rest of it. He was back to his characteristic grandiosity, his customary falsehoods, his mocking, his taunting.
“We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” he pouted. “He has this thing about living in a basement.”
Then, later, addressing Biden directly: “Don’t give me the stuff about how you’re this innocent baby.” What a perfect example of Trump’s habit of assigning his opponents caricatures that apply perfectly to him.
For most of the evening, Biden shook his head in disbelief, smiled the way you do at an incorrigible toddler, said less than he could or should have and counted down the minutes until it was all over.
He actually looked long and hard at his watch. In a different debate with a saner opponent, that gesture might have been fatal. In this one, it was merely relatable. I, too, couldn’t wait for the night to end. And I’m betting that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt the same way.
Enough of this campaign. Enough of this administration. Enough of the ambient ugliness in America right now. It’s time to turn the page, and that’s what, in his utterly unremarkable but strangely reassuring fashion, Biden promised to do on Thursday night.
His message in general and his closing comments in particular were that we’re better than this and that we can move past it. He delivered them just sturdily enough that he probably will get the chance to lead us into our next chapter.
This debate, moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News, was the two candidates’ second (and last) meeting, and it certainly improved upon the first, but that’s in part because there was no sinking lower than that catastrophe. Also, the debate commission built in a safeguard: With each new topic, each candidate got to talk for an initial two minutes during which his opponent’s microphone was muted.
Outside of those protected zones, there was plenty of interrupting and — shocker of shockers — President Trump did most of it. He was a nasty piece of work, which is to say that he was true to form.
He came into the evening in miserable shape, the odds against his re-election growing longer with each daily snit. His economy has tanked, his base has shrunk, his attempts to vilify Biden have failed and his downplaying of the coronavirus has been undercut by his own infection with it and its rampage through the White House.
What he needed on Thursday night was a “Hail Mary,” not a “Biased Lesley,” which was his tack in the hours beforehand, as he pressed an obsessive, unwarranted attack on Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes,” one of the most popular and trusted news shows on American television. That pique and petulance followed him onto the stage in Nashville. While his advisers had urged him to smile more than he usually does, he sneered and scowled as much as he always does.
To be fair, he had a tough, even impossible, task. On the one hand, he had to rattle Biden, because the way to catch up to a front-runner is to halt his stride, and Trump was hardly going to do that with politeness and affirmations.
But he couldn’t repeat his disastrous turn in that first debate, when he wasn’t so much fierce as feral. To repair the damage from it, he had to exhibit at least a whisper of decorum and the faintest murmurings of a heart.
Those goals were in tension, though several prominent Republicans noted that Trump had a model for how to behave: Mike Pence, who was alternately combative and serenely confident in his vice-presidential debate with Kamala Harris.
But Trump lacks the humility to take cues from anyone. And nudging the nutty monarch of Mar-a-Loco to emulate the Hoosier snoozer is like asking a honey badger to morph into a three-toed sloth. It goes against the very nature of the beast.
He pursued an odd strategy, built on pure delusion and dependent on voters’ complete amnesia.
He painted Biden, not himself, as an ethical abomination whose career in government was devoted to personal enrichment. He portrayed the Biden family, not his own, as a clan of grifters. He essentially cast Biden as the incumbent, speaking as if Biden had exited the vice presidency all of 60 seconds ago, and clung to the claim that he, the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful country for nearly four years now, was the ultimate outsider.
“It’s all talk, no action, with these politicians,” Trump said at one point.
These politicians? Mr. President, let me introduce you to the profession that you now inhabit. You’re awful at it, and there’s a death toll of more than 220,000 Americans that speaks to that. But it is your occupation, God save the rest of us.
I would love to be able to write that Biden, in contrast, was dazzling, but I live in a realm more truthful than Trump’s. Biden is never dazzling.
He was frequently wobbly, failing to nail comebacks that should have been a cinch. He was occasionally evasive, as he protected his lead and tiptoed around potential land mines.
But what I’ve come to appreciate about Biden is that he’s not claiming greatness, not the way Trump does with just about every breath. He’s claiming steadiness. He’s claiming good intentions. If he wins, he may be the rare president who’s not convinced that he’s the smartest person in every room.
I nodded along with his final remarks, when he said, yet again: “What is on the ballot here is the character of this country: decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity.” He’s right about that. And he’s the right person because of that.
“You know who I am, you know who he is,” Biden said earlier. “Look at us closely.” I don’t need to turn my eyes toward Trump anymore. I’ve seen all that I can take, and I’m long past ready for a different view.
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