A Bullying President at an Ugly Debate


Where does all this stand, days after the debate and a month before the election? All summer, wise people were saying Joe Biden’s ahead but Donald Trump’s in the game, can’t write him off, a lot of issues (rising crime, economic fear, a poor Democratic convention) are going in his favor, this thing is dynamic.

But things are congealing now, taking on their final shape, and isn’t it kind of obvious, especially after the debate, what’s happening?

The polls have had Mr. Biden leading for the past 12 months, almost impervious to events. FiveThirtyEight.com’s national polling average this week has Mr. Biden up by 7.9 points, Real Clear Politics by 7.2. There are other, smaller things, dots in the emerging picture. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the former wrestling star and popular movie star who himself has been spoken of as a possible GOP contender and whose fan base can be assumed to be pro-Trump, this week made his first presidential endorsement and came out for Joe Biden. Former generals who’ve never publicly endorsed anyone—such as Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Chuck Boyd, for seven years a prisoner of war in Vietnam—have come out for Mr. Biden. All these endorsements look targeted to giving American men permission to go for the guy who may look weak but in the end is the stronger choice. As for what in more innocent times was called the woman’s vote, this column thinks what it thought in June: They’ll crawl over broken husbands to vote him out.

I believe in the phenomenon of shy Trump voters, people who fear, rightly, that they’ll be looked down on if they say they’re for him, their social or professional standing damaged. But if the polls are roughly right there wouldn’t be nearly enough to make a difference.

The horse race is fun, and good for ratings. Mr. Biden has always been a poor national candidate. And Mr. Trump has some dark magic, some voodoo no one understands, he’ll pull something out of the hat. But he’s not magic, it’s not voodoo; he’s a clever man who capitalized four years ago on a perfect historical storm. He is losing. Joe Biden is winning. And there’s no particular reason to think it will be close.

What did the debate do to this picture?

The president depressed everybody, even his own supporters, by acting like a bullying nut. He left people anguished about the future of the country. By the time it was over people were thinking, deep down: The incumbent is an incompetent who’s out of his mind, and the challenger is a befuddled man who struggles to carry a public thought to its conclusion, and who can’t tell you what he’ll do in part because he doesn’t want to and in part because he doesn’t really know.

After the debate I spent a long night and a full day talking to Trump foes and supporters and foes, and all I heard was an outpouring of sadness.

Mr. Trump has come in for most of the critical scorn—fair enough!—but Biden deserves plenty also. He could string sentences together, but they weren’t very good sentences. He wasn’t always coherent: “The 20—the 200 mil—the 200,000 people that have died on his watch, how many of those have survived?” He insisted Roe v. Wade “is on the ballot in the court.” He attacked Mr. Trump for coronavirus lockdowns: “This is his economy he shut down”—but when asked why he is more reluctant to reopen it he didn’t really have an answer.

Chris Wallace: “Are you willing to tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the court?” Mr. Biden seemed in his answer to be repeating the advice of his debate coach: “Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue. . . . You should go out and vote. . . . Vote and let your senators know strongly how you feel.”

Mr. Trump: “Are you going to pack the court?”

Mr. Biden: “Vote now.”

Mr. Trump: “Are you going to pack the court?”

Mr. Biden: “Make sure you, in fact, let people know, your senators.”

Trump: “He doesn’t want to answer the question.”

Biden: “I’m not going to answer the question.”

But it couldn’t be more important as a question. Every American has the right to know his plans here, and Mr. Biden has the responsibility to provide them.

Mr. Wallace asked Mr. Biden what “reimagining policing” means. Biden said he’s not for defunding; police need “more assistance. They need when they show up for a 911 call to have someone with them as a psychologist or psychiatrist to keep them from having to use force and be able to talk people down.”

C’mon, man. An officer answering a midnight call with some doped up guy wielding a knife in a darkened doorway and a woman and kids sobbing inside the house—that cop would be happy to have a shrink to help, and also a priest and a rabbi and The Rock and a helpful hospital team with a straitjacket. In what world is tapped-out, freaked-out, unruly America going to get that?

Mr. Wallace asked if Mr. Biden had ever called the Democratic mayor of Portland or governor of Oregon and asked them to do whatever it takes to end the summer’s riots. Biden, weakly: “I don’t hold public office. . . . I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted.”

He never asked them to “knock off a hundred days of riots?”

Mr. Biden: “They can in fact take care of it if he’d [Mr. Trump] just stay out of the way.”

The two most terrible moments. however, belonged to Mr. Trump. Condemning white supremacy is not only morally right, which is its own unarguable imperative; it is easy, a softball a competent demagogue could have hit out of the park. Americans disapprove of hate groups! They hate groups based on hating a race or religion or ethnicity. Such groups are un-American. It is scandal a president would not denounce them.

As terrible, and ominous, was at the end.

Mr. Wallace: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Mr. Trump: “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster.” He spoke of mail-ballot fraud, “We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.” “It’s a rigged election.” “This is not going to end well.” He said this twice.

Mr. Wallace: “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?”

Mr. Trump: “I am urging my people . . . if it’s a fair election, I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

He wouldn’t vow to do what any president in history would do, urge calm and discourage violence.

But Mr. Biden did. “The fact is, I will accept it. . . . And if it’s me, in fact, fine. If it’s not me, I’ll support the outcome.”

It was the most important thing said all night. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for saying it. Shame on the president for not. What a loser.

Wonder Land: Amazing that just five words from the debate may tip voters who are undecided between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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