With his back against the wall, Donald Trump pulled himself together and had the debate of his life. For the most part, he was focused, contained and determined to get his message across and not just be the alpha male.
His defense of his coronavirus response and his argument that the country cannot long survive living under perennial lockdown constituted the most eloquent he’s ever been on the pandemic.
Trump did make a few of those jaw-dropping assertions about a vaccine — that one is coming in a few weeks and or by the end of the year and that two pharmaceutical firms were almost done with one before naming not two but four firms.
That could really come back to bite him over the next few weeks as others in the know throw cold water on these claims and he is forced to defend them.
But where he really drew blood was in returning to the line of attack that helped get him elected — the idea that he had to enter politics because politicians hadn’t done the job.
“You’re all talk and no action,” Trump said to Joe Biden in his best line — and in the best moment of any debate of this cycle. He made sharp and deserved fun of Biden when the he turned to the camera to talk about voters at the kitchen table in order to shift the topic away from corruption and China.
Mostly, though, this debate made it clear what an incredible mistake Trump made in the first debate by behaving like a jerk. Had he been this Trump, rather than that Trump, he would be in a stronger position today.
Fifty million votes have been cast already, and they were cast with the memory of that disaster fresh in the minds of those early voters. The voters up for grabs might have acted differently if they’d seen this guy.
But just because Trump did so much better doesn’t mean Biden did worse than he did in the first. He was fine. He didn’t win, but if he lost, he lost on points, and not many points.
He refused to play on Trump’s turf and stuck to his own message. When Trump flat-out charged that Biden had taken millions from Ukraine and China, which would make him guilty of multiple felonies, the former vice president did not lose his cool but stuck doggedly with his claim that he did nothing wrong and nothing unethical had happened.
That’s important because the Hunter Biden corruption story can only be the key to changing the race’s trajectory if (a) that connection to Joe directly can be proved rather than asserted based on a few suggestive e-mails or (b) Biden acts Hillary-like and acts in ways that keep the story alive despite its danger to him.
This was the last moment Trump will be able to go at Biden directly on the question and, though this will anger people who are hoping for the trajectory change, Biden did not do or say anything to add any logs to the fire.
And yet there was one moment that may be very damaging to Biden. Trump accused him of wanting to ban fracking — a key industry in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio in particular — and Biden not only said he had never done so, he challenged Trump to find the evidence and put it on Trump’s Web site.
That evidence exists. There was an exchange between Biden and a voter in New Hampshire in January 2020. The voter asked him, “What about, say, stopping fracking?” And Biden responded, “yes.”
This is the kind of thing Trump can make a killer commercial about and run in Pennsylvania 10 times a day until the election. Biden’s leading there, but it’s close, and if Trump wins it, he can win the election.
If he doesn’t, he almost certainly can’t. Watch for it.