Presidential Debate: Trump Won the Debate—But Won Bigly the Post-Debate

President Donald Trump answers a question during the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., October 22, 2020. (Morry Gash/Reuters)

There was a low bar for Joe Biden in the first debate, given his cognitive challenges. Because he exceeded that pessimism, he won momentum. 

In opposite fashion, there was similarly an expectation that a disruptive Donald Trump would turn off the audience by the sort of interruptions and bullying that characterized the first debate. 

He did not do that. He instead let a cocky Biden sound off, and thus more or less tie himself into knots on a host of topics, but most critically on gas and oil. So likewise Trump will gain momentum by exceeding those prognoses. 

But far more importantly, the back-and-forth repartee will not matter other than Trump went toe to toe, but in a tough, dignified manner and beat Biden on points. Biden did not go blank — although he seemed to come close, often especially in the last 20 minutes. Had the debate gone another 30 minutes, his occasional lapses could have become chronic.

What instead counts most are the days after.  The debate take-aways, the news clips, the post facto fact checks, and the soundbites to be used in ads over the next ten days all favor Trump. In this regard, Biden did poorly and will suffer continual bleeding in the swing states. 

We will know that because by the weekend Biden will be out of his basement and trying to reboot his campaign and actually be forced to campaign. 

So we are going to hear over the next week that Biden simply denied the factual evidence of the Hunter Biden laptop computer, the emails, the cell phones, and the testimonies from some of the relevant players as a concocted smear, a Russian disinformation attack. That denial is clearly a lie. It is absolutely unsupportable. And Biden will have to drop that false claim.  

Biden will suffer for unequivocally denying what is now a demonstrable fact: there is evidence that his family ran a systematic shake-down operation to peddle inside access and influence for millions of foreign dollars in profits. In the debate, Biden seemed bewildered why anyone could ever conclude the obvious.

Biden lied about his “super-predator” quote. Ditto his flat-out untruth about his opposition to the Trump travel ban and the border cages, and his denial of prior opposition to fracking.

Usually Trump is accused more of exaggerations and fabrications; in this debate Biden will be far more fact checked.

Again, Biden’s sloppy and confused talk on the Green New Deal will not play well in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Voters there know that his abstractions of “transitioning” out of fossil fuels or banning fracking but just on federal lands is a euphemism for renewing the Obama-Biden war on pipelines and gas and oil production. So Biden now has gone full-circle: last year bragging about banning fracking and ending fossil fuels, then in the general campaign denying that, and now reaffirming it.

Biden also hurt himself with his base, by blaming Obama for not getting more crime reform for drug sentencing while accusing Bernie Sanders of pushing a socialist health plan and suggesting his own opposition to it had boosted him over his leftwing rivals in the primaries (perhaps true, but not wise to ensure the base turns out). 

Americans know by now that treatments are improving on COVID-19, that death rates are declining, and that it is true that about 99.8 percent of the infected under 65 will survive the virus. Trump did well in pointing all that out.

So gloomy scenarios of 200,000 more dead by New Year’s, or of more national lockdowns, and no vaccination until mid-year 2021 are both unlikely and too doom-and-gloom a scenario for most Americans. 

Voters will more likely agree with Trump that they are going to get through and “live” with the virus rather than Biden’s pessimistic forecast of “dying” with it. Trump was right to say that the lockdowns are cumulatively likely to have killed or injured more than the virus itself.

Biden’s immigration meandering will turn off voters by his siding with those who illegally cross the border, are caught, and then released and do not show up for trial (he lied about this too in saying that they almost all show up for their hearings). 

Trump, then, after four years in the White House, nonetheless successfully returned to his role as the outsider cleanser of Biden’s Augean insider stables. His theme was can-do Americanism, Biden’s was timidity and caution and worries that there is little hope anywhere to be found, an attitude consistent with his own hibernation. 

Final thoughts on the debate: The moderator Kristen Welker was far better than the prior debate and town-hall moderators, in avoiding the scripted stuff like the Charlottesville distortions and ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ questions. That said, she interrupted Trump far more than she did Biden, and focused more on Biden-friendly questions. 

But most importantly, Trump kept his cool, was deferential to Welker, and was tough but not cruel to Biden.

The final question is not whether Trump won and will be seen to have won bigly by next week, but to what degree Biden’s suicidal talk of ending fossil fuels and denial of the Hunter Biden evidence that cannot be denied implode his campaign early next week or not until Election Day.

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