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One Debate Line that Biden Would Like to Have Back

In politics, you don’t win a debate by actually winning a debate. Rather, you win a debate by producing a moment, some type of face-to-face encounter or memorable declaration that will be repeated in news coverage and in digital media.
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October 24, 2020
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in the final presidential debate against U.S. President Donald Trump at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In politics, you don’t win a debate by actually winning a debate. Rather, you win a debate by producing a moment, some type of face-to-face encounter or memorable declaration that will be repeated in news coverage and in digital media. Most voters won’t watch an entire debate, and even fewer will be versed in the intricacies of the charges and counter-charges that occupy most of the candidates’ time. So that viral moment can carry a disproportionate impact.

One example: Ronald Reagan seized control of a primary debate in 1980 by declaring, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”

Another: Lloyd Bentsen dismissing —and possibly destroying — Dan Quayle by stating: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And more recently, Kamala Harris established herself as a compelling voice in the discussion over race relations during this year’s Democratic primary, when she concluded a debate exchange over busing by talking about her own experience. “That little girl was me.”

Sometimes that memorable moment can be an error or a misstatement, such as Gerald Ford asserting at the height of the Cold War that there was no Soviet domination of eastern Europe.

And while nothing in Thursday night’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden approached that level of impact, Biden may have inadvertently creating a damaging moment for himself by answering in the affirmative when Trump asked him during a discussion of climate change whether he would “close down the oil industry.”

Biden began his response with the word “yes.” And although he then added the sentence, “I would transition,” the potential damage was done. Biden realized it almost immediately by stressing that the transition would take place over time, more specifically, over the next thirty years. His advisors saw the problem too. By later that night, Biden was holding a news conference to explain that he meant he would shut down government subsidies of the oil industry, not the industry itself.

But the smile on Trump’s face when Biden made the original statement was telling, and the president quickly began reciting states where Biden’s answer could cause problems for the Democratic nominee. It’s a virtual certainty that the Trump campaign will have ads about that moment in key swing states within 24 hours. Biden’s longshot chances for winning Texas may have disappeared, and his uphill fight in Ohio may have become more difficult, too. Of greatest concern to Biden supporters is the possible impact in Pennsylvania, where working class voters in the western part of that state have already been eyeing Biden’s intricate position on fracking with some skepticism. Biden has opened a healthy lead in the Keystone state, but that margin may shrink in the days ahead.

It’s a virtual certainty that the Trump campaign will have ads about that moment in key swing states within 24 hours.

Make no mistake —Trump had serious problems, as well. He was more restrained in this debate than in their first encounter. But he still minimized the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, offered irrational excuses regarding his personal finances, and asserted that immigrant children who had been forcibly separated from their parents are “so well taken care of.” He managed to twice tell the African-American debate moderator that he was “the least racist person in the room.”

With only days remaining in this campaign, and tens of millions of ballots already cast, Biden is still a much stronger favorite than Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016. But the Democratic nominee created an unnecessary problem for himself last night. He may be fortunate that it occurred in the second debate and not the first one.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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