The Trump campaign has placed a lot of stock into depicting Joe Biden as a dementia rattled fool, too incompetent and too incapacitated for higher office. But it’s a narrative that continues to backfire, especially after Thursday night’s CNN town hall which featured a clearheaded, gaffe-free Biden.
At a drive-in set up just outside of Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden answered questions from voters for over an hour, pledging to raise worker wages, pushing for a national mask mandate, and—in what was his most searing moment of the night—condemning recent comments made by Attorney General William Barr, who recently compared covid-19 lockdowns to slavery.
“What Bill Barr recently said is outrageous,” Biden told the town hall. “I will tell you what takes away your freedom: not being able to see your kid, not being able to go to the football game or baseball game, not seeing your mom or dad sick in the hospital, not being able to do the things, that’s what is costing us our freedom.”
But, even as Biden easily positioned himself as a more empathetic candidate than Trump, his stance on the environment remained relatively conservative. Biden reiterated his support of fracking for natural gas, referring to it as “transition” fuel. And he eagerly distanced himself from the Green New Deal, the ambitious legislative proposal aimed at addressing climate change and inequity in the United States. A position that will, no doubt, continue to hurt him with young voters.
“I’ve got my own deal,” Biden said, adding that his climate agenda aims for “net zero emissions by 2050" just as the GND does. Biden’s climate policy is unquestionably more robust than the Republican alternative, but his reluctance to address the GND comes across as an attempt to appeal to moderates above all else.
Overall, Biden’s performance was perfectly competent, and he displayed empathy and compassion for voters that was lacking during Trump’s Tuesday night town hall. It was the small gestures that seemed to matter most: Biden’s condolences for voters who were grieving the loss of family members to covid-19, insisting that he’ll gather contact information from a couple of attendees. It was a stark contrast to Trump who was defiant about his mishandling of coronavirus.
While “competent” isn’t glowing praise, it might as well be given the low expectations that the Trump campaign continues to lob onto Biden. It isn’t without precedence: Republicans and Democrats, voters and pundits of varying political stripes have long remarked on Biden’s lack of cogency, especially during the Democratic debates and on the campaign trail during the Democratic primary. A combination of incoherent commentary and lackluster performance turned Biden’s fumbles into perfect meme fodder. But when the election cycle became a two-man race, it became increasingly evident that “Sleepy Joe”—a phrase Trump has tweeted 85 times in 2020 alone—wasn’t making the splash the Trump camp hoped. Biden’s gaffes of late have been corny but not game-changing, and his speech closing out the Democratic National Convention was heartfelt.
But the Trump campaign has been reluctant to ease up on the rhetoric. During a campaign rally in March, Trump said, “They are going to put [Biden] in a home and other people are going to be running the country.” In June, Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that Biden “can’t put two sentences together” and that he “doesn’t know he’s alive.” At a rally in New Hampshire in late August, Trump said that if he doesn’t win re-election, “I will have lost to a low-IQ individual. I don’t want that. ‘Sleepy Joe,’ I don’t want it.” This language has also been aided by Fox News talking heads and Trump’s son, Don Jr, who regularly aggregates memes and political cartoons lampooning a senile Biden for his 3.5 million followers on Instagram and his 5.6 million followers on Twitter.
This reflects a broader issue with Trump’s re-election efforts. Whether it’s the impact of covid-19, the scourge of trigger-happy police officers, or the abject competency of Biden, Trump is asking the American people, “Who are you going to believe: Me or your lying eyes?” Millions of Americans will stick with Trump no matter what, but Biden’s performance makes it harder for Trump to make his case.