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On one hand, Thursday’ night’s dueling town halls — in which Joe Biden talked to voters on ABC, and Trump talked to voters on NBC — was yet an unfortunate artifact of 2020 dysfunction. It wasn’t just that the campaigns, networks, and debate commission leaders couldn’t reach an agreement on what constitutes a safe and fair virtual debate. They couldn’t even pull off a televised event in which the two candidates weren’t talking at exactly the same time.
But it turns out, the programming fail did have one advantage. We got to see the essence of each candidate, straight out of the firehose, without interruption.
The people pleaser.
The media warrior.
Tune into whichever channel you prefer.
We got to see the essence of each candidate, straight out of the firehose, without interruption.
Over on NBC, Donald Trump was ready to fight. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie was tough on the president from the start, challenging him on his failure to wear a mask, his reluctance to condemn white supremacy, his refusal to acknowledge what QAnon even is. And Trump couldn’t have been happier. Throughout the hour, he pit himself against the news media — and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Pelosi — far more than against Joe Biden. And the more Guthrie hammered him with facts and corrections, the more comfortable Trump seemed to be.
This is what Trump’s base wants to hear, after all: The bravado, the bluster, the demeaning comments. ("So cute," he snarled at Guthrie during one mildly heated exchange, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment). It’s a posture meant for winning points and owning your opponents, proving your distance from the establishment, even when you occupy the pinnacle of power.
When actual voters asked questions, Trump wasn’t quite so pugilistic. Maybe that’s because the regular people in the crowd were more deferential; one woman even told him, “You’re so handsome when you smile,” before zinging him with a pointed question about whether he’d help the young immigrants who are recipients of DACA. Trump’s answer was strikingly nonspecific: “We are going to take care of Dreamers.”
It was a pretty effective way to contrast two candidates, all in all. If you had the energy to keep pressing the remote.
This is the textbook Trump, too, hyperbole mixed with confidence. (“I’m ready to sign a big beautiful stimulus,” he said at one point, and he repeated his standard claim that he’s been the best president for Black Americans since Lincoln.) And when it came to the ultimate question — whether he’d accept the results of the election — Trump was as noncommittal as ever, continuing to sow the seeds of mistrust about the reliability of mail-in votes. Guthrie tried to correct him. Trump, again, pushed back.
Over on ABC, Biden seldom argued with moderator George Stephanopoulos. His mission was to please, and then some: He seemed driven by a desire to personally win over every voter in the room, talking as long as he needed to make his case. When one skeptical-looking man asked, “What do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you as a perpetuating a system that continues to fail them?” Biden unspooled a flood of policy ideas: Criminal justice reform, early education, support for HBCUs, seed money for first-time homebuyers, programs for young black entrepreneurs. Moderator Stephanopoulos had to cut him off.
“Did you hear what you needed to hear?” Stephanopoulos asked the questioner.
“Uh, I think so,” the man said, sounding unconvinced. And Biden looked bereft; he had failed to make a connection.
Biden stumbled into a few moments of disconnect like that, when a personal story from the 1950s didn’t quite match an issue rooted in 2020 sensibilities. There were moments of garden-variety political evasiveness, as with his answer about whether he’d support packing the Supreme Court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed: “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on.”
Biden is full of standard political tropes; at one point, he rose from his chair to recreate the way he used to speak, with respect, to his opponents on the Senate floor. But baked into his nostalgia is an implicit appeal for old-fashioned decency and human connection. At times, Biden looked as if he wanted to elasticize his limbs, reach up to the voters who were sitting far apart in the arena, and give them each a squeeze on the shoulder. Well after the town hall had officially ended, the cameras spotted him lingering in the hall, still talking to the crowd, making his case.
In other words, Biden was as Biden-y as Trump was Trumpish. And in their parallel arenas, in the absence of a time clock or an opponent competing for airspace, they were free to display their absolute selves and give a glimpse of what the next four years could be. It was a pretty effective way to contrast two candidates, all in all. If you had the energy to keep pressing the remote.
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