WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump may be the only person in America who is afraid of Joe Biden.
During the action, Trump absurdly accused Biden of wanting to abolish the suburbs, "the cows" and the cops; declined to denounce white supremacists; and insisted that the election is going to be rigged against him.
And after Trump aggressively failed to demonstrate presidential temperament — blustering, bullying and lying his way through the debate — his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, praised him for being in "control of the conversation."
Trump's words and actions were those of a candidate who knows he is losing and has no idea how to fix the problem.
The irony is that Biden was deeply vulnerable: after decades of experience at the highest levels, he's still not a strong debater. He was noticeably apprehensive; he lacked the motivation and speed to brawl on stage; and he still didn't have good answers for a host of questions about his record and platform.
But Trump couldn't or wouldn't stay focused on Biden's actual positions. Instead, he ran against a dark caricature of the former vice president while the real version was standing right there smiling.
Trump accused Biden of "defunding the police," a slogan used by some liberal Democrats as a shorthand for focusing less money on enforcement.
"What I support are the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face and I’m totally opposed to defunding the police offices," Biden said. "As a matter of fact, police, local police, the only one defunding in his budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance."
Similarly, he said, Biden wants to get rid of cows.
"He's talking about the 'Green New Deal,'" Trump said. "They want to take out cows, too." One quickly scrapped fact sheet on a nonbinding Green New Deal resolution — which Biden does not support — noted that it would be difficult to "fully get rid of farting cows." The resolution, as introduced in the House, does not mention cows at all.
"It's a rigged election," Trump alleged after being asked whether he was sure the vote would be fair. He also called on the Proud Boys, a violent misogynistic right-wing hate group whose members have participated in white supremacist activities, to "stand back and stand by," and insisted that the polls needed to be watched by his supporters. One of Trump's sons, Donald Trump Jr., has encouraged backers to form "an army" for "election security."
"When the votes are counted and they’re all counted, that will be accepted," Biden replied to the same question. "If I win, that will be accepted. If I lose, that’ll be accepted."
If Trump truly thinks Biden is a puppet of ideologues and his advisers, he should have bought an earpiece for Biden so that those forces could communicate their messages directly to him.
Left to his own natural devices, Biden repeatedly looked into the camera — at the home audience — and tried to demonstrate compassion for voters while hitting Trump over his personal tax payments and his response to the pandemic.
"The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the Covid crisis have done very well," Biden said at one point. "You folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working-class towns in America, how well are you doing? This guy paid a total of $750 in taxes."
At another point, Biden turned toward the camera to ask how many people at home were sitting around a kitchen table with an empty chair because a loved one had been lost to the coronavirus.
Trump charged, obviously without evidence, that more Americans would have died by now if Biden were president.
"If we would’ve listened to you, the country would have been left wide open, millions of people would have died, not 200,000 — and one person is too much," Trump said. "It’s China’s fault."
Biden said, with considerably more evidence, that Trump hadn't leveled with the public about the dangers of the disease.
"This is the same man who told you by Easter, this would be gone away," Biden said a few moments later. "By the warm weather, it’d be gone. Miraculous, like a miracle. And by the way, maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm, and that would take care of it. This is the same man."
Trump said he had suggested bleach as a salve sarcastically.
Where he had chances to attack Biden's actual record, he chose to embellish or lie about it — or simply let the debate move on.
For example, Trump said Biden had called Black people "superpredators" while authoring the 1994 crime bill. Biden's support for a law that established longer prison sentences and incentivized states to build more prisons — which disproportionately affected people of color — didn't include the use of that term. The crime bill is a topic that could hurt Biden's turnout among Black voters. But Trump chose not to stick to the facts.
He also curiously never returned to a question that bedevils Biden: whether he would move to pack the Supreme Court if elected president. Biden refused to answer because, he said, any answer would become the headline. That is, he would alienate either the left or the moderate Republicans by making his position clear.
Trump seemed to have the upper hand in a debate over Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett — "I'm not opposed to the justice, she seems like a very fine person," Biden said — but the president didn't bring the conversation back around to her, either, a possible sign that he is concerned her confirmation process will energize Democrats.
In the end, what voters saw was a president who was deeply fearful of the result of a fair election determined on the actual positions and records of the two candidates. And yet, his desire to dominate the debate stage — to talk over both his opponent and the moderator, Chris Wallace — made it more likely that the race will be a referendum on him than a choice between him and Biden.
For Trump, who has been underwater in approval ratings for nearly four years and who trails in key polling, that's enough reason to be scared.