Joe Biden’s Refreshingly Trump-Free Town Hall

Last week, when the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that, in response to Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, it intended to make the second planned debate a virtual event, the President, predictably, made a stink. His campaign issued a series of statements denouncing the “unilateral” decision, complete with empty threats and contradictory demands. Joe Biden, wisely, simply moved on. Within hours of the commission’s announcement, the Democratic nominee had struck a deal with ABC to hold a solo town hall in Pennsylvania, on Thursday, the night of the disputed debate. Trump eventually worked out an arrangement for a town hall of his own, in Florida, during the same time slot, on NBC.

When Biden entered the Presidential race, in the spring of 2019, his pitch to voters was that Democrats needed, first and foremost, to remove Trump from office. His opponents spent the rest of the year ganging up on him for his refusal to embrace the ambitious social programs that the left wing of the Party has been calling for with increased urgency and confidence. But though Biden continues to reject many of those ideas—on Thursday night, he called the Green New Deal the “New Green Deal”—he has picked up on the language of “plans” that Elizabeth Warren helped popularize. On the campaign trail, Biden used to stop himself from going into details, worrying that he didn’t want to “bore” voters. On Thursday, he took the opposite approach, often rattling on at great length about statistics, dollars, and implementation wrinkles. “You have ninety-one of the Fortune 500 companies not paying a single solitary penny,” he said, in response to a question about taxes. “You raise the corporate taxes back to twenty-eight per cent, which is a fair tax, you’d raise one trillion three hundred billion dollars—by that one act! If you made sure that people making over four hundred grand paid what they did in the Bush Administration—39.6 per cent—you would raise another”—he checked a pamphlet he’d brought with him in the breast pocket of his suit jacket—“it goes up to, let me get you an exact number here: another ninety-two billion dollars.”

Biden wound up delivering ninety minutes of nationally televised political discourse mercifully free of Trump’s derangements. It was a rare night of policy detail so late in a Presidential campaign. That voters had a choice—on another channel they could have been watching the President endorse dangerous conspiracy theories, but they were instead watching the Democratic nominee speaking wistfully about the potential environmental and economic benefits of turning chicken, cow, and horse manure into fertilizer pellets—only heightened the feeling that the event was its own, enclosed space.

That’s not to say that, eighteen days from the end of this election season, the subject of Trump didn’t come up. The first question of the night came from a man named Nick Feden, a Democrat from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, who asked Biden to explain how the governmental response to the pandemic would have been different if he’d been President, and how it might be different if he becomes President in January. “He missed enormous opportunities,” Biden said, of Trump. “He didn’t talk about what needed to be done, because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market.” The event’s host, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, pressed Biden on how he himself would beat back the virus without causing further pain in an economy that, by Inauguration Day, will have been partially paralyzed for almost a year. “You can contain the pandemic by being rational, and not crush the economy,” Biden said. “For example, I laid out a plan for how you can open businesses. You can open businesses and schools if, in fact, you provide them the guidance that they need, as well as the money to be able to do it.”

Biden didn’t shine at every moment—even he acknowledged that his hope of finding “between four and eight” Republican senators willing to “move” on areas of “bipartisan consensus” seemed, at best, like wishful thinking—but most of these moments were informative for the viewer. When a student named Cedric Humphrey asked what Biden had to say “to young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in the system that continually fails to protect them,” Biden responded with a long answer that touched on criminal-justice reform, wealth attainment, educational opportunities, drug abuse, cybersecurity, redlining, and small-business loans—seemingly addressing the country’s general racial situation rather than the young Black man standing before him. “Cedric, did you hear what you need?” Stephanopoulos asked. “Uh, I think so,” Humphrey replied.

On the subject of court-packing, Biden put the onus on the Republican-controlled Senate. “I have not been a fan of court-packing,” he said, before adding that if the Senate rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, the judge that Trump has nominated to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before Election Day, he might be open to “alternatives.” But he seemed to waiver on whether this was a procedural issue or a moral one, first making the case that the Constitution “implies” that a Justice shouldn’t be confirmed while an election is already underway, before finally landing on the argument that the Senate’s priorities are out of whack. “Here you got a lot of people not being able to pay their mortgage, not being able to put food on the table, not being able to keep their business open, not being able to do anything to deal with what’s going on to the economy as a consequence of COVID,” Biden said. “And they have no time to deal with that, but they have time to rush this through?”

Perhaps Biden’s best moment of the night came when a man named Mark Hoffman described the recent peace agreements announced between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors as “a modern-day miracle,” and asked Biden whether Trump doesn’t deserve “some credit” for his foreign-policy achievements. “A little, but not a whole lot,” Biden said. “We find ourselves in a position where we’re more isolated in the world than we’ve ever been, our allies are going it alone. America first has made America alone.” Suddenly, Biden was wearing his old hat as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He mentioned Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and China. “I would say we find ourselves less secure than we’ve been,” he said. “I do compliment the President on the deal with Israel recently. But, you know, you take a look, and we’re not very well trusted around the world.” He spoke of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, of the situation in Afghanistan, and of the relationship with NATO. “You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world,” Biden said. “This President embraces all the thugs in the world. I mean, he is best friends with the leader of North Korea, sending love letters. He doesn’t take on Putin in any way. And he’s learned the art of the steal, from the art of the deal, by Xi in China. So I would respectfully suggest, no, there is no plan, no coherent plan, for foreign policy.” The cameras caught Hoffman looking a bit stunned.

The challenge for Democrats this year has been to properly contend with the threat Trump represents, without ignoring the issues that the country will still be facing whenever Trump is gone. On Thursday night, Biden struck that balance as well as he has at any time in this campaign, making a convincing case that a post-Trump future was within reach and projecting an image of a politician already assuming the posture of the Presidency. Trump’s singular gift as a politician has been to make himself the subject of every conversation. On Thursday night, Biden found other things to talk about.


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