Even then, it was a throwaway insult directed towards Trump before the debate descended again into a cacophony of circus farce, traded insults, and shouting: ‘This guy and his friends look down their nose at Irish Catholics like me who grew up in Scranton,’ said Biden, looking full on at Trump. Nothing else on religion for the rest of the debate, before or after.
In this election, religion was always going to drive a wedge between candidates. So the subject was avoided, other than Biden’s fleeting reference to Biden’s Irish-American background growing up in the swing state of Pennsylvania.
To a 2am riser watching in the UK, it looked like Biden’s team of advisers may have warned their candidate against attacking the Barrett nomination as to do so might come across as Catholic-on-Catholic bigotry and could serve no useful purpose.
It’s a weird election as it’s Biden who is the Catholic but Trump’s more likely to mobilise the religious vote as his base includes many with strong religious beliefs who hold opposite views to Biden on most subjects, especially guns, God and abortion. No amount of Biden being seen holding a rosary or reminding people that he is a blue collar Irish Catholic will change that. The last thing Biden needed was for Trump to remind Americans of his abysmal political record as a Catholic. Biden has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and has supported federal funding for abortions and school choice.
Yet there is an irony about this religion dodging strategy.
Biden is the latest in a line of Catholic Democrat presidential candidates with Irish-American heritage. What’s unusual, however, is that he seems anxious about trying to mobilise the Catholic vote, unlike his Irish-American Democrat nominee predecessors. Al Smith (famously anti-prohibition) in 1928, JFK, John Kerry – and zero Republicans. Yet Trump – whose Slovakian wife Melania is Catholic and has had an audience with Pope Francis – seems the one more comfortable trying to make Catholic values a vote winner.
One way to try to win TV debates and influence voters is to pour fuel on pre-existing caricatures of your opponent. Thus, Trump has repeatedly tried to cast Biden as ‘against God’ and has made him seem anti-Christian and against the constitutional right to keep a rifle. The narrative that Trump has been peddling is that Biden is a doddery old Marxist who wants to destroy America with a radical agenda out of the Hugo Chavez playbook. ‘He’s against God. He’s against guns,’ Trump has said of Biden.
So Biden largely avoided religion last night – other than the once – and instead relied on a strategy of just making it through the 90 minutes without being knocked out; and because Trump had set such a low performance bar (in the debate, Trump ridiculed his intelligence and low school grades), Biden somehow managed to step over it despite looking old, robotic and frail and stumbling through his clearly rehearsed script.
Andrew Neil, formerly the BBC’s most feared political TV interviewer and chairman of the USA Spectator, Tweeted: ‘Biden was faltering, hesitant and unable to deal with Trump hectoring. But he did not fall on his face.’ American commentators broadly agreed. Certainly, Biden didn’t clean up.
It’s difficult to say who actually won Round One (of three), but the president failed to recover the polling momentum he was hoping for in order to close the polling gap on Biden, especially in all-critical Florida, where the race is very tight and some polls had shown Trump gaining ground heading into the debate.
The interesting thing here — and I’ve covered a few US elections — is that losing the first debate (or at least not landing his fist into Biden’s solar plexus as he had hoped) is not necessarily a bad omen for an incumbent president. It’s par for the course.
History teaches that almost no sitting presidents have won the first TV debate since they began with the infamous first debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 in which radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon but those who saw him sweating under the hot TV lights voted for Kennedy.
I was discussing this very subject only last week with Jim Messina, Obama’s winning 2012 campaign manager. Jim reminded me of just how badly Obama did in the first debate against Mitt Romney in October 2012 at the University of Denver. A Gallup poll found that 72% of those watching believed Romney was the clear winner. Yet Obama clawed back voters and won.
Trump will hope to do better and recover momentum on October 15th in all-important Florida and then again on October 22nd in Nashville.
‘Obama did terrible in his first debate, Bush did super bad at his, Clinton was horrible in his – it’s just true in all these debates,’ said Messina. ‘Trump’s other problem is he hates rules, right? And in debates he has to stick to two minute answers.’
In another irony, it was Biden’s bullish performance in the 2012 vice-presidential debates that helped drag the Obama campaign back on track. As Messina says, Biden can be good at “one-liners.” Only he never landed anything memorable on Tuesday, and will have to do better the next time out.
William Cash is a journalist, editor, and publisher. He is chairman of the Catholic Herald board of directors.
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