Commentary: Biden was decent in both senses of the word; Trump was talented and awful

By Josh Greenman, New York Daily News on

Published in Political News

For the first presidential election since, well, the invention of Twitter, I spent a debate actually watching the thing on one big screen, not simultaneously following it on a second small one. So I'm reacting not to the hive mind or to the spin room (are there spin rooms anymore?), but to what I think I just saw and heard.

What I saw and heard Tuesday night, through the maelstrom nominally moderated by Chris Wallace, a spectacle far more reminiscent of "Nailed It" than "The Great British Baking Show," was Joe Biden often straining to land clean punches against Donald Trump, and Trump at close to top form, in the worst way. What I also saw is a Biden who seemed fundamentally solid and honest and correct on the vast majority of issues, and Trump consistently devious and deceptive, and more than a little desperate.

I am not a neutral observer. Who in America can be at this point? I know Trump is a liar. I know he is unstable, narcissistic, bitter, a terrible example for our kids. I know he is corrupt. I know he is shameless. I know he winks and nods to racists and has said racist things himself. I know he wants America to spiral into violence. I know he demeans others to try to build himself up. I know he's done a cataclysmically terrible job responding to the coronavirus, and that his attacks on the Affordable Care Act would kneecap millions of Americans at the worst possible time. And I know he is preparing about 40% of Americans to refuse to accept the election results if he loses.

But it's also undeniable that Trump has hard-to-replicate charisma. He's quick. He's furious. He can be funny. He goes for the jugular, and if he misses, he goes for the carotid. He brings guns, brass knuckles and friends without scruples to knife fights. In some settings, it's good to be a demagogue.

Biden is slow and steady but at least a bit listless. Every third answer feels genuinely persuasive. The others are cobbled together, close enough but not quite there. "Here's the deal" is his crutch, and he leans on it far too much.

I generally like his politics, but when he was vying to be the nominee, I worried about what would happen on the big fall stage. I worried about him crumbling a little under pressure rather than rising in the heat of the general election. I worried about a man who had already lost a step losing another.


That's not quite what we just witnessed, but neither did we see Biden in his element. Instead, when Trump lied, when he insulted, when he interrupted, when he played cute rather than flatly condemning white supremacists, when he lied again, when he lied again, Biden tended to resort to an exasperated smile and eye roll and a simple, oft-repeated, "that's not true."

No doubt that's how many of us felt as well, but we weren't on the stage with the opportunity to hit back. Biden was.

He had his moments. He gave at least one very strong answer cataloging Trump's coronavirus lies and deadly wishful thinking. When he debunked Trump's lies on mail-in voting, he was coherent. When he defended his sons, he was clear and impassioned.

But I wanted more. So I spent the debate, this shallow-breathing, undisciplined brawl, wishing Biden could have been more effective, wishing he could sharply articulate a bigger vision while surgically attacking Trump's character and performance, wishing he could prosecute the case against a man who's said and done enough awful things to fill many hours. I wanted him to deliver a few truly resounding takedowns, and some genuine uplift.


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