In an otherwise capable presidential debate performance, Joe Biden struggled to explain his own energy policy, handing Donald Trump a soundbite to use as a cudgel against him in the crucial battleground of Pennsylvania.
"In politics, when you're explaining you're losing," said LA Times national political correspondent Mark Z. Barabak, who returned to Newsmakers TV to break down Thursday night's final debate.
On balance, the Timesman said, the event broke little new ground and probably switched few votes ("Nothing President Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden said or did seems likely to change a great many minds," he wrote in an on-deadline piece for the newspaper's website and print editions) as the two candidates clashed, in what passes for a "civil" debate in 2020, over Trump's mishandling of the pandemic, systemic racism, personal corruption, immigration policy and the weirdo leader of North Korea, among other subjects.
Trump was far more subdued, if just as acid-tongued, as in the first calamitous debate a few weeks ago, while Biden staved off a Republican attack narrative about his cognitive capacity by acquitting himself with a solid, if unspectacular, showing (Barabak's takeaway: "Crisp speaking, cogent argument and linear presentation have never been the former vice president’s strong suit. There were long and winding answers. There was the occasional far-fetched claim..There was garble and a verbal stumble now and then").
Biden's one significant stumble, referenced by Barabak's explaining-is-losing remark, engendered post-debate efforts by campaign strategists and aides to spin and clean up the Democratic nominee's messy utterances as he touted the job and economic benefits of his green energy proposal to move the nation towards zero carbon emissions, responding to a question about climate change.
Walking the line between progressives in his own party, who find his climate policy too timid, and tens of thousands of blue-collar workers in the oil industry, who like their jobs, Biden flubbed a precise explanation of his position on fracking, specifically, and the petroleum industry more broadly -- issues that are especially crucial in Pennsylvania, the state that is perhaps most critical to Electoral College calculations in the Nov. 3 election.
His unforced error resulted in headlines like this one at the top of the Washington Post's home page -- "How Politically Damaging Were Biden's Comments About Closing Down the Oil Industry"? -- that cited this exchange near the end of the debate:
Trump: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
Biden: “Yes. I would transition.”
Trump: “That is a big statement.”
Biden: “That is a big statement.”
Trump: “Why would you do that?”
Biden: “Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly. … Because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry, I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”
Trump: “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Biden's "yes" in responding to Trump's question is all but certain to feature in new TV and online attacks in petroleum-rich western Pennsylvania, if it hasn't already. Don't count on it including much context.
While Biden Bedwetting Brigades obsessed over the political implications of his energy comments, Trump also offered plenty of fresh fodder for attacks against him, not least when he dithered in trying to answer an inquiry from moderator Kristen Welker about his "kids in cages" policy -- and the government's inability to locate the parents of 545 detained children, who were separated from their families at the border, a scandal that Biden repeatedly called "criminal."
The kids “are so well taken care of, they’re in facilities that were so clean," Trump blurted at one point, a soundbite unlikely to win back suburban moms, a cohort that polls show is deserting him in large numbers and whose support he desperately needs to regain.
All the punditry, speculation and poll-gazing will end in just 11 days, however, when Barabak saddles up to write the Times' Page One lead story on the election, churning out multiple iterations throughout the night to account for fast-breaking state-by-state results, murky new developments and the built-in unpredictable unknowns of every election night ever.
Plenty of free pizza.
Lead image: CNN.