‘Mr. Rogers’ versus ‘someone’s crazy uncle’: There wasn’t a debate on Thursday, but the dueling town hall format played to Joe Biden’s strengths

The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.

JIM WATSON,BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, participated in separate town halls Thursday evening in lieu of a second presidential debate.
Trump appeared on NBC with Savannah Guthrie, while Biden appeared on ABC with George Stephanopoulos.
The Trump town hall focused mainly on the myriad scandals and controversies around the White House, while Biden’s offered a more subdued look at what his administration would look like.
Biden hung around afterward for about half an hour, mingling with voters and showing his love for retail politics.
The tone and even the volume of the two events were polar opposites, allowing Biden to use his affability and humility to his advantage.
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The dueling town halls Thursday night between President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, were billed as a “split-screen” experience, but it was more like intentionally inflicting a technical glitch on a home-entertainment system.Trump’s town hall on NBC was loud, aggressive, and, at times, terse.Biden’s town hall on ABC was quiet, congenial, and almost boring.Yet the former vice president showed once again that his affability, penchant for retail politics, and even his more boring streak are some of his strongest political assets, particularly in the endgame shaping up around suburban women and voters 65 and older in the battleground states.

‘Crazy uncle’ versus ‘Mister Rogers’Trump desperately needed to flip the script — a similar position as he was in ahead of the first debate, when he actually did substantial harm to his already-deep polling deficit — but instead, he offered more of the same.His exchanges with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie centered mostly on the myriad controversies and scandals orbiting the White House.An exchange about QAnon — the baseless far-right conspiracy theory claiming that Trump is secretly fighting a “deep state” cabal of satanic pedophiles and cannibals — typified the way Trump’s combative interview style did not adapt well to the town-hall format, something that should have been a red flag after his previous one.Trump refused to denounce QAnon, repeatedly saying “I know nothing” about it.

When Guthrie pressed Trump on his recent retweets promoting a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory, she frankly pointed out: “You’re the president — you’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.””No, no, no,” Trump interjected. “That was a retweet. I do a lot of retweets.”The retweets in question were linked to a conspiracy theory that Osama bin Laden’s assassination was faked and that the Obama administration staged a cover-up.—Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) October 16, 2020Though the issue had already caused headaches for Trump’s reelection campaign, his answers to that line of questioning were similar to various other times he had objected to condemning fringe or hateful groups who happen to include some of his supporters.

“I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said at one point, despite his claims to “know nothing” about QAnon. “They fight it very hard.”Meanwhile — in between a more collegial discussion of policy between Biden, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, and voters — the former vice president offered an unusually candid assessment of what he would attribute his campaign’s failure to, should he lose to Trump.—Bloomberg QuickTake (@QuickTake) October 16, 2020″Well, it could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically, and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”Somehow, Biden was able to turn a question most politicians would loathe into his arguably strongest moment of the night.

There were other occasions when Biden dodged questions. He even acknowledged doing so when asked about “court packing,” or adding justices to the Supreme Court.Beyond the “lousy candidate” comment that would have been foreign to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Biden was given a chance to demonstrate his penchant for retail politics and, as he would put it, being able to “level with the American people.”Biden even stayed in the hall for about half an hour after the event concluded, chatting up voters and appearing to take questions from those who did not get to ask one.When Biden made his comments about what it would mean if he lost, Trump’s town hall had just ended.

—Johnny Verhovek (@JTHVerhovek) October 16, 2020Had any undecided voters been changing the channel, they would have gone from Trump shouting over voters and belittling the host to Biden lowering the temperature with a contemplative and vulnerable moment.Once it was all over, the Trump campaign immediately pounced on the “lousy candidate” line in a two-second clip with a deliberate lack of context.—Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) October 16, 2020A tweet from one of Trump’s top campaign advisers, Mercedes Schlapp, however, quickly took hold online in the way it typified the night.—Mercedes Schlapp (@mercedesschlapp) October 16, 2020—Emma Gray (@emmaladyrose) October 16, 2020Schlapp comparing Biden to the late TV host Fred Rogers — apparently as an insult — encapsulates the gamble the Trump campaign has taken, with the president and his surrogates focusing on energizing the MAGA base instead of trying to build upon his narrow 2016 coalition to be more sturdy in 2020.

Thursday night did not offer Trump a chance at pulling off a massive reset of the race.It did not have any viral moments rivaling the fly from the vice-presidential debate or the cross talk from Biden and Trump’s first contest — moments that would break out of the political news ecosystem and into the realm of pop culture, where undecided voters are more likely to be reached.That kind of outcome, whether it’s a wash or a waste of time, probably qualifies as a beautiful day in the neighborhood for the Biden campaign.

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