“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people,” President Donald Trump said during his inaugural address. “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
But in the final debate of his first term, Trump forgot them.
The second and last debate of this cycle was less of a catastrophe than the first, and while Trump was more in command of his emotions, it was probably Democrat Joe Biden’s strongest debate of the election cycle. Trump repeatedly tried to bait Biden with attacks on his family, but Biden kept his cool, and instead channeled his anger into stinging critiques of Trump forgetting ordinary Americans.
Often turning to speak directly to the camera, Biden portrayed himself as the real populist onstage. Trump, accused of forgetting the people who put him in office, offered little in response, except returning to attacking Biden’s family.
The first moment came early on, during a section of the debate ostensibly about the coronavirus pandemic, when Trump brought up (and largely failed to clarify) a byzantine set of allegations against Biden’s son Hunter. Biden denied the claims but didn’t linger, and instead told the audience watching on TV that the president was trying to change the subject.
“It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family’s hurting badly,” he said. “If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now. You’re sitting at the kitchen table this morning deciding, Well, we can’t get new tires, they’re bald, because we have to wait another month or so. Or are we going to be able to pay the mortgage? Who’s going to tell her she can’t go back to community college? They’re the decisions you’re making.”
This was boilerplate Biden—he even mentioned Scranton—but it was just the start. Later in the debate, Biden criticized Trump for not passing economic-stimulus measures. The moderator, Kristen Welker (who far more ably corralled the candidates than Chris Wallace managed to do in the previous debate), asked why Biden hadn’t pressured Democrats to push a deal. The former vice president pointed out that the House passed a large bill in May, but that the GOP-led Senate has not taken it up.
“I have, and they have pushed it. They passed that back, all the way back at the beginning of the summer. This is not new. It’s been out there,” Biden said. Republicans “have not done a thing for them. And Mitch McConnell said, ‘Let them go bankrupt. Let them go bankrupt.’ Come on. What’s the matter with this guy?”
A moment later, Trump dismissed the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, an increase that Biden and two-thirds of Americans support. Again, Biden pounced.
“No, no one should work two jobs, one job, and be below poverty,” he said. “People are making, $6, $7, $8 an hour—these first responders we all clap for as they come down the street, because they’ve allowed us to make it. What’s happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15. Anything below that puts you below the poverty level.”
Trump wasn’t out of the woods. The next question was on the administration’s policy of separating migrant families intercepted at the border. While a judge ordered the families reunited, the government said in a court filing this week that it cannot find the parents of 545 children. Trump cycled through a few answers, (justifiably) assailing the Obama administration’s immigration policy while (falsely) claiming that the children were brought by smugglers. Biden, in his response, seemed genuinely furious.
“Coyotes didn’t bring them over,” Biden said. “Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Trump again tried to turn the conversation back to Barack Obama’s handling of migrant children, but unlike in the first debate, Biden wasn’t rattled.
“Let’s talk about what we’re talking about,” Biden replied. “What happened? Parents were—their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
Trump mocked Biden’s remarks as so much shtick, arguing that Biden was a career politician with little to show for his record.
“That’s a typical political statement. Let’s get off this China thing and then he looks—the family, around the table, everything,” Trump scoffed. “That’s why I got elected. Let’s get off the subject of China; let’s talk around sitting around the table. Come on, Joe, you can do better.”
Of course, Trump is right: This is what any normal politician would say. But that argument is no longer the obvious asset for Trump that it was four years ago. First, Trump is no longer running against Hillary Clinton. For reasons ranging from Clinton’s speeches to big banks to misogyny, many voters viewed her expressions of concern for the common man as phony. Biden’s record of delivering on his rhetoric may be mixed, but there’s little point in denying his affection for, and connection with, blue-collar Americans.
Second, Trump now has a record to run on, and it’s not good. Four years ago, he could credibly claim to be a political outsider, and no one knew quite what a Trump administration would look like. Now it is all too clear. Before the pandemic, the president could at least point to a strong economy, and tonight he pleaded for credit for the way things were (“I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here,” Trump said, confusingly) and bragged about the stock market. But he had little to say to ordinary Americans, who are hurting economically.
Third, even if it sometimes comes across as banal, people thirst for this kind of empathy—that’s why most politicians do it, and it’s consistently one of the things that voters name as a Biden asset. Trump has never been much for personal warmth, but he once used his anger to show that he cared for people and would protect them, claiming he was the tribune of Americans who had been left behind. Now he mostly seems angry about the way he is treated.
Biden’s attacks rang true tonight because the hollowness of Trump’s past populist claims is now manifest. The president once claimed that he has “one of the great memories of all time,” but on the debate stage, it failed him—and Biden remembered.
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