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The Whiplash of Watching Two Town Halls From Different Planets

I watched both Joe Biden and Donald Trump on Thursday night. It was like channel surfing between sanity and chaos.

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Donald Trump’s bumptious, boisterous, blustering performance in his first face-to-face debate with Joe Biden changed the trajectory of the presidential race—giving the former vice president a hefty lead. 

So it was no surprise that Trump came up with an excuse to duck a rematch with Biden, claiming incoherently that a virtual debate would somehow upend the hallowed traditions of American democracy that the president respects so deeply, even though there is a precedent for a virtual debate. (John Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s third debate in 1960 was conducted as a split screen, with one candidate in Los Angeles and the other in New York.) 

Rather than go up against each other for a second time, Biden and Trump held two dueling town halls Thursday night, with Biden on ABC and Trump on NBC. Playing Trump’s enabler, NBC allowed the president to counter-program Biden despite the biting criticism of the move from both outside and within the network. But the real appeal of the town halls to both ABC and NBC was the advertising bonanza. As Variety reported, “The networks broadcasting their events may be looking less at headlines the two politicians will generate and more at the money they will draw.”  

For those demanding headlines, the dominant one is that Biden did nothing to jeopardize his lead and Trump did nothing to expand his base. Despite the vicious—and mostly ineffective—GOP attacks on Biden’s mental acuity, the former vice president gave listeners a level of detail Thursday night that bordered on the soporific. As for Trump, he couldn’t even distance himself from QAnon, which he described as “very strongly against pedophilia,” as though these nutcase right-wing conspiracy theorists are nothing more than an innocuous counterpart to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

A dedicated political reporter might have watched one town hall and taped the other. Instead, trying to replicate the experience of a twitchy voter, I clicked back and forth during the hour when the two town halls overlapped. The Biden event went an extra 90 minutes, which provided an inadvertent tribute to the Democrat’s stamina. But more than that, the two simultaneous town halls on rival planets—sorry, rival networks—provided a telling example of the differences between a challenger who came out of three decades in the Senate and an incumbent president who came out of three decades in the tabloids. Biden has a programmatic vision for America in 2021 (not as bold as many Democrats might prefer, but probably more sellable to the voters) and Trump offers, to put it charitably, four more years of presidential mania. 

All this was evident during my Adventures in Channel Surfing:

On NBC, Savannah Guthrie began with a few coy words about Biden appearing on “another network,” as if mentioning ABC by name would jeopardize fourth-quarter earnings. Guthrie then, to her credit, took advantage of liberties not available to debate moderators who have to enforce to rigid time limits, as she aggressively quizzed Trump on his experience with Covid.

Trump’s answers did little to shed his reputation as the superspreader in chief. Asked when he last tested negative in the days leading up to his Covid diagnosis, Trump said, “I don’t know, I’m tested all the time.” Even though the rules for the initial September 29 debate required both candidates to be tested in advance, Trump was equally vague whether he had been tested that day.

Chris Christie, who had been hospitalized for the virus, ruefully told The New York Times Thursday, “I hope that my experience shows my fellow citizens that you should … wear a mask to protect yourself and others.” The only lesson Trump, on the other hand, learned from being hospitalized was to double down on his destructive war on face coverings, claiming to Guthrie (in a bizarre exchange), “Eighty-five percent of the people who wear masks catch it.”

That was my prompt to click over to ABC, where Biden was saying to George Stephanopoulos, “We have 210 thousand-plus people dead. And what’s [Trump] doing? Nothing. He’s still not wearing masks.” In 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for president, he promised, “A choice not an echo.” But it is hard to find a more dramatic choice in American history than the chasm between the two septuagenarian candidates on the simplest public health question of all. As Biden put it, “When the president doesn’t wear a mask and makes fun of folks like me for wearing a mask … people say that, well, it mustn’t be that important.”

The problem with watching Biden is that sanity does not create compelling crash-and-burn television. Biden’s answers were solid and on point, as if he were replaying his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan. Yet, in a telling example of my own moral failings, I couldn’t resist clicking over to the competing town hall.

I arrived just in time for Trump’s QAnon answer. Guthrie followed up by asking the president why he retweeted a hateful and unhinged claim that Biden had arranged for the killing of Navy Seals “to cover up the faked death of bin Laden.” In a profile in interviewer courage, Guthrie even likened this presidential tweet to “someone’s crazy uncle.” Trump’s response said volumes about his commitment to truth and even the barest requirements of civilized society. “That was a retweet,” Trump said, “I do a lot of retweets.”

This was the moment when I contemplated taking a long shower to wash off the residue of watching Trump. Instead, I reached for the clicker and arrived at ABC just in time for a commercial:  “Now that T-Mobile has merged with Sprint.” Our democracy is in peril, but far more important is getting the best price on your cell phone plan.

That was enough to prompt me to take a very quick look at the Rays-Astros baseball playoff game on TBS. Only the most resolute commitment to journalistic duty made me return to Biden’s town hall, where he was in the process of answering a question about his message to young Black voters. What I heard was a litany of laudable program details: “We have one school psychologist in America right now for every 1,507 kids. It should be one in 500. Not just in schools that are poor, but in all schools.”

After Biden went on for about five minutes with a laundry list of examples, Stephanopoulos asked the young Black male questioner, “Did you hear what you needed to hear?” The response was a less than enthusiastic, “I think so.”

Biden, of course, will never be a candidate of Kennedyesque charisma, as he dreamed about during his initial presidential run in 1987. But what Biden is succeeding at is something more important in the Age of Trump. He is running as a generic Democrat, who has united his party in a way that many thought impossible, offering voters a contrast to Trump with few of Hillary Clinton’s liabilities.  

I managed to click back to Trump in time to catch one of the more revealing moments of the presidential town hall. In another smart exchange, Guthrie followed up a voter question by pressing Trump on whether he wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned by the Supreme Court. Despite his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s answer should have disappointed the anti-abortion movement. The president expressed no problems with abortion ending up being “sent down to the states and each state [would] decide.” The president even theorized that it was possible that “nothing will happen” with Roe v. Wade.

At this stage of the campaign, there is little that the narrow band of undecided voters can learn about either Trump or Biden. With record numbers of voters casting their ballots early, there is a widespread eagerness for this election campaign to be over. And nothing that happened Thursday night suggests that there will be many surprises (aside from Trump’s mood) during the final debate next week.