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In dueling town halls, Biden's command counters Trump's attacks

Analysis: By going deep on policy, the Democratic nominee demonstrated the mental acuity the president says he lacks.
Image: Joe Biden, Donald Trump
On Thursday, Biden demonstrated a command of substance at odds with Trump's caricature of him, and Trump revealed that he is more inclined to water down his tone than change course.AFP-Getty Images; AP

WASHINGTON — At 8:08 p.m. Thursday, Joe Biden explained why he trusts scientists, and not President Donald Trump, to tell the truth about the effectiveness of anti-coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

"President Trump talks about things that just aren't accurate about everything from vaccines: We're going to have one right away, it's going to happen and so on," Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, said in a town-hall interview on ABC.

Seconds later, in a similar interview on NBC, Trump asserted, as he has for months, that the country is "rounding the corner" on neutralizing the disease and that the U.S. is "a winner" on "excess mortality" rates.

"What we've done has been amazing," Trump said. "It's rounding the corner, and we have the vaccines coming and we have the therapies coming."

For just a moment, to anyone watching the two networks simultaneously, it looked like they were debating each other in a newfangled virtual format. But their dual town-hall duel, brought about when Trump refused to debate remotely after contracting the coronavirus, created a diluted but effective study in contrasts.

Biden demonstrated a command of substance at odds with Trump's caricature of him as intellectually diminished, and Trump revealed that he is more inclined to water down his tone than change course.

Biden, freed from usual debate strictures to speak at length, spent much of the 90-minute event providing context for his thinking on several controversial topics. For example, he reiterated that he breaks from the progressive "Green New Deal" on climate change because he doesn't believe that harmful emissions can be reduced at the rate, or by all of the means, that the proposal demands.

Instead, he said, the economy needs time to "transition" away from fossil fuels, and he dug deep into the soil of some prescriptions for environmental restoration that he does support.

"We can do things like pelletize all the chicken manure and all the horse manure and cow manure and they can be — and take out the methane and use it as fertilizer and make a lot of money doing it," he said.

Rather than persuading voters that his plans are the right ones, the effect of Biden's performance may have been to reassure them that he's mentally agile after Trump has been saying for more than a year — without evidence, a medical degree or access to conduct tests on his rival — that Biden is suffering from dementia or a similar impairment.

While he stumbled over his words on occasion, at no point during the 90-minute town hall did Biden seemed to lack command of the substance or a memory, however hagiographic, of his role in past policy battles in the Senate and as vice president.

Trump, with a supporter nodding at his every utterance in the background, had no need to compete with an opponent for attention. Though he interrupted moderator Savannah Guthrie repeatedly, he appeared to be studiously lower-strung than he was during a first debate with Biden late last month.

In that debate, Trump tried to bulldoze Biden and moderator Chris Wallace by speaking incessantly, and he seemed to grow agitated when he was asked to denounce the "Proud Boys," a violent misogynistic hate group that has participated in white-supremacist activities.

Trump didn't denounce the "Proud Boys" then — he told them to "stand back and stand by" — but he said Thursday that he denounces white supremacy.

Trump's own commentary is most responsible for the difference in tone and substance of the two town halls. He has created a thicket of thorny questions about his personal conduct and finances that center more attention on him and less focus on policy matters. His past remarks announcing his requirements for Supreme Court nominees have led Democrats, the media and Republicans who oppose Trump to ask whether his latest nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, has been compromised by conditions.

Trump said he did not discuss with her any specific cases or precedents before he nominated her. And, in an unusual show of restraint, he declined to reiterate his call that Roe v. Wade be overturned. In demurring, he cited concern that saying it again could create the perception that he is trying to unduly influence Barrett.

Left unsaid was his effort to win back the votes of politically centrist women he has alienated over the course of the last four years, many of whom would like to see Roe remain in place.

Trump had a few rough sound bites, as when he described a reported $400 million in debts he personally guaranteed as "a very small amount of money." Trump also appeared to acknowledge the basic construct that debts are coming due and did not categorically deny that foreign entities could hold IOUs.

Overall, though, Trump stuck to his script. He has built a political brand, and he did nothing Thursday to alter it. That was mostly true for Biden, too, with one big exception: He showcased his capacity to think through complex public policy questions and their potential effects on Americans. For a candidate who has staked his election hopes on personal traits — character, he likes to say — the substance mattered.

That's not so much because undecided voters will be swayed by his prescriptions, or that the intricacies of agricultural policies will mobilize young progressive voters who aren't sure they want to show up for him. It's because he countered Trump's main line of attack against him by demonstrating his command of substance.