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Littwin: The headline from the debate is Trump wasn’t a major jerk, but that isn’t the headline he needed

If Trump lost the first debate on bad behavior, he lost the second on the merits. Biden wasn’t great, but he didn’t need to be. He had four years of the Trump presidency to fall back on.

OK, let’s agree — I think everyone does — that Donald Trump was not nearly as much of a jerk in the second, and final, presidential debate as he was in the first one.

But where we might disagree, although I feel pretty confident here, is that Trump was still plenty jerk enough.

Thanks to the mute button and to moderator Kristen Welker and to, let’s give credit, Trump’s decision to actually follow the advice of his, well, advisers, Trump did not constantly interrupt, he did not talk over Joe Biden, he didn’t even condescend to the female moderator, which is probably a first. Just ask Lesley Stahl and the 60 Minutes crew. Yes, as the debate went on, Trump did begin talking over Welker to get more time to throw more punches Biden’s way, but that wasn’t exactly a flagrant foul. 

What I mean is, the debate was recognizably a debate, but that, it turned out, wasn’t so good for Trump, either.

Mike Littwin

Trailing badly in the polls as Election Day nears and with 47 million people having already voted as of Thursday, Trump needed a game-changing debate. Unless you think he showed he has the pandemic under control or the economy under control or will soon bring upon us a new dawn of racial justice, he didn’t seem to get that game-changer. 

All Joe Biden had to do was to play for a draw. That’s a low bar, which he cleared easily enough, despite the expected garbled language and the odd error — like, say, when Biden called Trump’s favorite white supremacists the Poor Boys instead of the Proud Boys, in maybe, I don’t know, a tribute to Creedence. Trump’s major line of attack was that Biden was a career politician — guilty — who had done nothing except pass the controversial 1994 crime bill, which Biden said he regretted but failed to explain.

In any case, to get to the heart of the debate, you have to ignore the usual barrage of Trump lies, the stunning-even-now lack of empathy, the revisionist history, the made-up quotes attributed to Tony Fauci and to Biden, the straight-faced, yet hilarious, claim that he has done more for Black people than any president with the possible exception of Lincoln, the sleazy smear of Biden’s character and assault on his son, Hunter, and just stick with the issues.

On the pandemic, in which we’re seeing the kind of sharp spike in cases we haven’t experienced since July, Trump said, as he’s been saying for a while now, that “we are rounding the corner.” It’s the same blinders-on view of the pandemic he has taken from the beginning despite the fact that we now know, thanks to Bob Woodward, Trump was told how dangerous the virus might be as far back as January.

We’re not rounding the corner — not when there were 73,000 new cases on Thursday, causing Biden to warn of a “dark winter.” In fact, we’re looking at either the second wave or third wave — depending on how you count the waves — crashing across the country. Trump’s answer to that is that we’ll have a vaccine soon — although experts tell us that in the best case, there wouldn’t be a vaccine for general use until the middle of next year — and, anyway, whatever has happened, Trump insisted, you can blame it on either China or Democratic governors. 

For example, when accused during the debate of not taking responsibility for the spread of COVID, Trump said, “I take full responsibility.” And then, I swear, he added, “It’s not my fault it came here. It’s China’s fault.”

This led to Biden’s best-remembered line of the debate. It was a chilling line, really. After Trump said of the pandemic that “we’re learning to live with it,” Biden noted the more than 220,000 dead and said, “He says we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.”

That was the first segment, by which time the debate was pretty much decided. Biden was ready for that segment — he didn’t do as well on some others — and Trump was caught in the same trap he had laid for himself months ago.

That segment was followed by health care, and Trump was immediately in trouble again. He keeps saying he has a health care plan that’s far better than Obamacare, but hasn’t revealed one in four years. He’ll say — just as Cory Gardner does — that he hopes Obamacare is overturned by the Supreme Court, even in the midst of the pandemic, and that he has a plan, another secret apparently, on how to protect those with pre-existing conditions. I can’t wait to see it. I bet Amy Coney Barrett can’t wait either.

Then Trump accused Biden of supporting so-called socialized medicine — or, as I like to call it, Medicare — and said Biden would take away all private health insurance. The fact is that Biden won the Democratic primary while opposing Medicare for All and is offering instead something he calls Bidencare, a name that may not catch on but does add a public option onto Obamacare.

Do you get the drift by now? Trump lost the first debate by being a jerk and the second debate on the issues. 

▶︎ Read more of Mike Littwin’s columns.

On immigration, Trump hit Biden by noting all that he and Barack Obama did not accomplish in their eight years, which is a fair point. It may go down as Obama’s greatest failure, especially his poor record on deportations. But there was news on the immigration front, and the news was not good. Apparently the Trump administration has lost track of the parents of 545 of the kids who were separated from those parents at the border and then placed in cages. 

Biden said the separations “violate every notion of who we are as a nation.” That may have been a good time for Trump to say that he grieves for those kids, who are entirely innocent. You think he did? 

Instead, Trump came back with the fact that some of  the cages dated to the Obama administration. “Who built the cages?” Trump asked, and Biden missed the chance to reply that the cages were built as holding pens for unaccompanied minors, separating kids from adult strangers, until they could be placed with Health and Human Services. There was no zero-tolerance policy.

But the worst moments of the debate came when Trump went all in on the latest anti-Biden conspiracy theory, run by Rudy Giuliani and printed in the Trump-friendly New York Post. It starts with Burisma, of course, and moves to Moscow and Beijing. Most of it is certainly baseless, and the origin story of the “laptop from hell,” as Trump called it, strains all belief.

In brief, you’re supposed to believe that Hunter Biden got money from everywhere around the world and that it was all linked to his father. Trump had no compunction about slandering Biden, and, if that’s good behavior, well, maybe it is by Trump’s standards. In the first debate, after all, Trump went after Hunter Biden’s drug addiction and this time, he didn’t go there at all.

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But it was ugly, and Trump tried to slip it in everywhere he could. Biden mostly refused to take the bait — a smart call — although he did bring up Trump’s refusal to reveal his taxes and also his recently discovered bank account in China, which prompted Barack Obama to say while campaigning for Biden that if he’d had such an account, Republicans would have called him “Beijing Barry.”

The thing is, unless you watch Fox News or read Breitbart or get paid — as I do — to keep up with this stuff, you probably couldn’t follow half of what Trump was saying about Biden, other than he was calling him corrupt again and again.

If that seems ironic to you, coming from Trump, with his long list of shady associates and even longer list of shady ventures, keep in mind that he did so without a particularly high degree of hectoring. And I guess, after the final debate, that’s all we could hope for.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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