Opinion

The town halls weren't a debate — but Trump still won

The president finally did what he should have done all along

I hope for the sake of the country that I was not the only person put out by the fact that there was no Thursday Night Football this week. It would be one thing if a previously scheduled game had been postponed thanks to the NFL's incoherent virus protocols, but this was the fault of a different set of suits.

Rather than debate each other on Thursday evening, Donald Trump and Joe Biden spoke at separate "town hall" events, both of which began at 8:00 p.m. This was probably inevitable after the president was diagnosed with COVID-19. The whole thing put me in mind of one of those classic rock bands that breaks up after their last and worst record, forcing fans to decide whether they want to hear the aging singer with a supporting cast of flunkies or the talented lead guitarist who can't sing to save his life.

Were the shows any good? I tried my best to take in both of them, but found after only a few minutes that tearing myself away from Trump and NBC's Savannah Guthrie to watch Biden tell George Stephanopoulos another dubious-sounding anecdote about his past was going to be difficult.

The thing about Trump and Guthrie is that for most of the evening it really did sound like a debate despite the absence of the other candidate. Here was Trump finally doing what he should have done in his first exchange with Biden (can you believe it was really three weeks ago?): not interrupting, cracking jokes, pushing back against school closures and other lockdown measures, which has always been the single best wedge issue available to him in this campaign.

He also reminded us that he is almost congenitally incapable of answering questions put to him, and not just by debate moderators. Asked by a young Republican woman about the consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade, he pivoted to saying that he had not given his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett any instructions about how he expected her to rule on abortion or any other issue. Faced with another query from a GOP voter about DACA, he mumbled about the border wall.

Meanwhile (I learned later) on ABC, Biden reiterated his support for fracking in an exchange with a voter from Pennsylvania, making the odd qualification that it should continue to be legal in the state so long as it did not increase the number of earthquakes. Later he made the lunatic assertion (totally ignored by the professional fact checkers) that he is personally responsible for making solar energy cheaper than coal and oil. (This must be why it accounts for a whopping 1 percent of all energy production in this country.)

Biden's triangulation on the subject of fossil fuels was the sort of thing we have all come to expect, even as polls suggest a narrow majority of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking. I was more surprised by his declaration of support for "an 8-year-old child or a 10-year-old child [who] decides, 'You know, I decided I want to be transgender, that's what I think I'd like to be."

In a recent poll by the conservative American Principles Project, voters in a number of states were asked whether children under the age of 18 should be able to undergo chemical or surgical sexual reassignment procedures; the response in Arizona (75 percent), Georgia (81 percent), Iowa (77 percent), Kentucky (84 percent), Michigan (79 percent), Montana (75 percent), North Carolina (84 percent), Pennsylvania (78 percent), Texas (81 percent), Wisconsin (77 percent) was overwhelmingly negative. Biden's assertion about prepubescent minors should but probably will not be the focal point of an eight-figure advertising campaign in every Midwestern swing state.

Which of the men had a better evening? Television ratings are only preliminary, but it seems a pretty safe bet that Trump had the larger audience. Does this make him the winner? I think the answer is yes, and not just because viewership statistics are a longtime obsession of his. Four years later, we are still debating the reasons for his victory in 2016, but the simplest explanation is that his opponent agreed to make the election about him.

He still enjoys this advantage.

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