Donald Trump learned his lesson to appear gentlemanly before a national audience at long last. But too late. That is the Big Takeaway from the Second Trump-Biden presidential debate on Thursday night.
Before the debate, opinion polls consistently reported Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden enjoyed a 10 percent lead over Trump across the United States: It is likely to grow wider now.
There are still 10 days to go as I write this before the presidential election is officially held on November 3. But Trump has already run out of time.
Around one third of estimated voters have already voted – 35 million by mail-in ballot and 15 million in person. Those votes are now cast in stone: They cannot be changed. The preference of Democrats to go with mail-in ballots and the revulsion for that system Trump has taught his supporters is telling. More than twice as many voters have voted the Democratic way as have voted the Trump way.
I have repeatedly warned in these columns how plain stupid, ignorant and incompetent it was to despise Joe Biden as a national political candidate. The debate on Thursday night confirmed my warning. Trump improved at last but he could not match Biden.
On the substance of economic policy and foreign policy, Trump remains vastly preferable to Biden for all his foul-ups. And on some substantive issues, the policies he expressed in the debate were far more realistic than Biden’s. But none of that matters.
Biden was commanding. He dominated the sound bites. Since Richard Nixon pummeled John Kennedy on substance but lost big on image in the 1960 presidential debate, image has always bulldozed substance in these events.
The idiotic and criminally incompetent Democrat governors of New York State, New Jersey and California were directly responsible for the deaths of at least one third of the 220,000 Americans so far carried off by COVID-19: They packed old peoples’ homes with thousands of contagious sufferers from the virus. But Trump was president, and his national policies in the face of the crisis too have often been irresponsible and woeful.
Trump is the head man. As he admitted in the debate, he is responsible. And he will be the national scapegoat, just as any Democratic including the Sainted Barack Obama would have been had they been in the White House when the coronavirus hit.
None of this is to say that Biden will be a good president, or a responsible one or even, given his age, an effective one at all. Also, the reflexive anti-Russian fantasies that now permeate the national Democratic Party at every level are delusional, contemptible and insanely dangerous.
At the end of the day the Republican Alternative Conservative Media in the United States dug their own grave. They gave Trump, his political strategists, pundits and key Senate allies endless excuses to ignore the genuine political skills Joe Biden honed during an almost unprecedented 36 years as senator followed by eight years as vice president.
They laughed at Biden. They thought he would be a senile old pushover in national debates. They made him sound like a drooling idiot, or Hillary Clinton in a drunken stupor.
But it was no drooling, senile old fool who showed up on Thursday night. Biden at the top of his game rhetorically demolished Trump as effectively as he destroyed the national careers of Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debates of 2008 and 2012.
This was the key exchange – and it was on dealing with COVID-19.
Trump said: “We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does… We can’t close up our nation. We have to open our schools and we can’t close up our nation or you’re not going to have a nation.”
And this was Biden’s reply: “He says that we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.”
That is the kind of line people will remember and quote for a hundred years. They will certainly remember it when they pull the levers in the voting booths on November 3.
Also, incredibly, Biden at almost 78 has proven vastly more energetic than Hillary Clinton did in campaigning across the United States even while the COVID -19 pandemic has been peaking again.
Unlike the inconceivably witless Hillary, who listened to a computer algorithm named Ada (after Lord Byron’s insane daughter) that told her not to bother campaigning in key Heartland industrial states, Biden has hit most of them in person and continues to do so.
Unlike the ineffably stupid and unteachable Hillary, the Irishman from hard-scrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania – a town I know well – does not make the mistake of imagining that a hard fought election campaign should be treated as if it were an imperial coronation.
Make no mistake, dangerous days are indeed ahead for the United States and the world: But a close and uncertain presidential election result is not going to be one of them.