America is bleeding and bloodied on the mat right now, and in last night’s presidential debate, both candidates were too busy punching one another to provide a tourniquet for our injured body politic. The next debate provides an excellent opportunity for Joe Biden to do just that. He is not Donald Trump, and using Trumpian tactics doesn’t work for him — not least because we’re all so dang tired of them.
Luckily, there is a chance for Biden to course-correct in the next debate — especially considering that the format will be different. In a town hall context, the candidates will be taking questions directly from the voters, and this is where Biden can offer the sharpest contrast between himself and the incumbent president. If these voters are anything like me (and probably you, too), they’ll be exhausted and frightened and sick of the bulls**t. They won’t want barbs and insults. They’ll want empathy and answers.
Joe Biden excels at delivering both. His compassion and relatability is legendary. This is the man who rode an Amtrak every day from Delaware to DC, just so he could tuck his children in at night. A man who called to check up on one of those Amtrak employees after he had a heart attack. This is a man who has suffered the most unimaginable tragedy — the death of his young wife and two of his children — and rather than being embittered, uses it as a bridge to connect with others. This is Joe Biden’s strength.
It will be a marked difference from Donald Trump, who at times appears to be pathologically incapable of empathy. Last night, Trump simply shouted down Biden and Wallace when he didn’t like a question or didn’t want to hear his opponent’s answer. Conventional wisdom says he can’t do that with voters, but conventional wisdom never applies to Trump, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sneered at every single person who dared think they could question his wisdom.
Let him. Biden needn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to Trump in debate number two. “Let Trump be Trump” was the mantra of the President’s 2016 campaign, and it will serve Joe Biden well. Let that jerk be a jerk. Let him insult, ridicule, and mock. Take a page from Michelle Obama’s book. Let him go low while Biden goes high.
Biden needs to simply ignore Trump and focus on the voters asking him questions. These are Americans, and Americans are in pain. Biden knows what it is to feel that kind of pain, to feel that kind of loss and anguish and despair. If last night was an opportunity for Biden to show he could go toe-to-toe with Trump, the next debate is an opportunity to show why he doesn’t need to.
In some ways I understand the impulse to go after the President with Trumpian tactics. The way he shouts over you and bludgeons the air with vitriol is exhausting. I admit that I cheered when Biden snapped at Trump to shut up last night. It’s something we’ve all wanted to say to that bloviating Troll Doll for years. But that moment of catharsis was short-lived. Telling Trump to shut up might feel good, but he’s never going to shut up, so what’s the point? Wrestling with a pig only gets you muddy, too.
In fairness, Donald Trump did come out and insult Joe Biden’s dead son, issue a call-to-arms to a white supremacist militia, and shout over and pick fights with both his opponent and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace. But Biden didn’t have to take the bait. He descended to Trumpian levels of pettiness by calling Trump “a clown” and “the worst president in history.” Two old men sniping at one another might be funny sitting outside a small-town courthouse, but it isn’t what we want to see on a presidential debate stage.
The next debate is an opportunity to show the American people the kind of leader Joe Biden is: kind, compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful, and thorough. Let Trump be Trump. Biden should be Biden. The difference will speak for itself.