October 18, 2020: Town halls

Comment: Town halls show Trump, Biden same as they ever were

In their competing appearances, Biden explained — at length — and Trump boasted and sidestepped.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

Joe Biden was intent on explaining and lecturing and cajoling his way into the hearts of undecided voters, Trump-leaning voters and even his own supporters … because why not? He didn’t bring a whiteboard to the ABC town hall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, but he had his own version of CliffsNotes that he looked eager to pass along to a questioner named Cedric who asked why young Black voters should support him.

Biden spent so long detailing his policy agenda — from his emphasis on early education and financial support of historically Black colleges and universities, to addressing ongoing housing discrimination due to redlining — that moderator George Stephanopoulos had to call an end to his exposition. But Biden was not done. He promised that he’d stick around after the town hall to continue his explanation. For real. No kidding. He was going to continue the conversation until he’d given it his all and taken nothing for granted, and poor Cedric looked a bit like a student who was being forced to stick around after class for extra credit.

Meanwhile, President Trump was in Miami for his town hall. When it opened, the president looked genial. He was smiling even though he was in the unusual position of speaking before an audience that was masked and socially distanced, instead of his typical shoulder-to-shoulder, droplet-spewing crush of devotees.

But after a few pleasantries about his health, he sounded like a student trying to explain why he hadn’t done the assigned homework. Where was his long-promised health-care plan? Where was the new stimulus package to address the economic fallout from the pandemic? His answer was essentially that the Democrats ate them both.

NBC’s Savannah Guthrie was a capable moderator who opened with a question that helped to explain why these separate town halls were happening at all, instead of the originally scheduled second of three debates. After the president was diagnosed with covid-19 earlier this month, the Commission on Presidential Debates changed the format from an in-person debate to a virtual one. Trump balked and announced that he wouldn’t participate. Biden opted for an ABC town hall. Trump then turned to NBC. But one of the lingering questions was whether the president had been tested for the coronavirus before that very first debate as he’d agreed to be. Guthrie asked him about it multiple times.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

“I probably did,” he said.

“Possibly I did,” he said.

There seemed to be so much that the president didn’t know. When Guthrie asked him to disavow QAnon, noting that he’d retweeted one of its convoluted lies, this one involving the killing of Osama bin Laden, he claimed not to know anything about the wild far-right conspiracy theorists other than that they were really “strongly” against pedophilia.

“Why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” Guthrie asked. “You’re the president. You’re not like somebody’s crazy uncle.”

And so, here we are. Voting has begun in the presidential election. Biden is unfurling such long answers to voters’ questions that many of them look as though they are going numb just trying to process it all. And Trump is still over-talking his moderator, who feels compelled to ask him such fundamental moral questions as whether he denounces white supremacy and believes in a peaceful transition of power, because the president has sowed so much heat and doubt that his answers cannot be assumed.

Trump was full of his usual bluster and braggadocio; and was helped along by one voter who told him she thought he had a beautiful smile. When asked how he planned to protect innocent Black and Latino lives from racial injustice, he pulled out his most favored refrain, “I have done more for the African American community than any president since” Abraham Lincoln, he said. “I have a great relationship with the African American community.”

When asked how he might improve upon his performance in a second term, a question that calls for both reflection and honest self-assessment, Trump answered, “I’ve done a great job.” So why sit for a town hall at all? If there is no room for improvement, if the administration is perfect and has done everything perfectly and has created a perfect country, why sit perched on a high stool in hot Miami and yell at a moderator asking perfectly reasonable questions?

Biden admitted that he was not perfect. A voter asked him whether his support of the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to the staggering rise of incarceration rates, was a mistake. “Yes, it was,” he said.

When a voter asked Biden whether he gave Trump a smidgen of credit on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East, Biden said, “A little,” but he quickly pointed out the president’s shortcomings: our worsening relationships with Iran, China and our allies.

Biden talked about pulling the country back from the brink of the abyss. Trump sees the abyss as a protective moat; and is happy to let those he views as undesirable plummet into it.

Each candidate was as they always are.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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