Column: Sleepy Joe? In final debate, Biden navigated a minefield of Trump disruptions

Mary McNamara
·6 min read
President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden during Thursday's debate.
President Trump, left, and Democratic challenger Joe Biden during Thursday's debate. (Associated Press)

I don’t want to hear another word about Joe Biden’s bumbles, stumbles, gaffes or verbal perambulations — and certainly not as a reflection of his mental agility.

Disagree with the man’s policies, past or proposed, all you want — but the man our president continues to refer to as “Sleepy Joe” has done what few others have been able to accomplish: emerge from a battlefield mined and muddied by Donald Trump with, as J. D. Salinger once wrote, all of his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

It is not an easy thing to do, as Trump's past opponents, and more than a few of his former supporters and staff, will tell you. Trump, who has long believed the best defense is a good offense, prides himself on being the Great Disrupter. He swipes, he volleys, he needles, he provokes and when he goes so far that even supporters protest, he claims the game is "unfair" or that he was only kidding.

And it has taken its toll on millions of the Americans forced to watch. The collective calories that must have been burned on couches across the country through sheer anxiety before and during the final presidential debate is incalculable. If some kind soul did not present moderator Kristen Welker with two Double-Double burgers, large fries, a double scotch and a large bottle of water on Thursday night, then there is no God. Her ability to remain calm and controlled after days of being in the president’s crosshairs was miraculous in itself; that she managed to ask tough and substantial questions and then insist, with varying degrees of success, that the candidates answer them left her lauded, and rightly so, as all but a hero of American democracy.

Which in itself should tell you what Biden was up against. Trump, who, despite being president, insists he is not a politician, has turned American politics into a never-ending playground brawl with such success that even basic, common-sense and scientifically proven practices to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus have been turned into an us/them referendum.

This is a man who can look at constantly rising, and now in many states terrifically spiking, numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths and say we’re “rounding the corner,” who can dismiss this country's high percentage of deaths compared with the rest of the world and say he’s done a terrific job of controlling the virus.

And, apparently, convince millions of Americans that he is right.

How can you actually debate a man like that? A president who concedes no points and is open to no criticism or contrary point of view, who regularly couches the most absurd assertions with "People are talking about it," “I heard that somewhere” or “I was only joking,” a man who dismisses the most verifiable facts with “That’s fake news.”

You don’t. You don't engage Trump in conversation or anything remotely resembling a debate. He prefers an exchange of invective and accusation, so if you want to actually talk, you have to talk around him.

Which is what Biden did last night.

Having set, with the first debate and the cancel

ed second debate, a bar of success so low it merely involved showing up and refraining from interrupting his opponent and abusing the moderator, Trump managed to earn praise for simply adhering to a few basic rules of adulthood.

Biden, on the other hand, had to spend the evening attempting to stay on message while Trump did everything in his power to force an error.

Instead of answering Welker's questions in any meaningful way or indeed making a case for his own present and future actions as president, Trump did what he does best: attack. He charged Biden and his family with demonstrably false old allegations and sketchily sourced and widely disavowed new ones. With his constant (and inaccurate) refrain of “You had eight years and you did nothing,” he tried to force Biden to distance himself from Obama (like that was ever going to happen). He mischaracterized the former vice president’s proposed plans and attempted to denigrate his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. He randomly accused Biden of taking millions of dollars from Russia (he didn’t), wanting to close down the entire country (he doesn’t), calling for a ban on fracking (he hasn’t) and wanting to kill all the birds with his support of wind power (huh?).

Trump so clearly and fervently wanted Biden to lose his cool that he resorted to schoolyard tactics, deriding Biden’s reminder that the election is “not about our families but your families” with a scoffing remark about “politicians” and responding to Biden’s remark about character with: “He’s a corrupt politician. Don’t give me this stuff about how you’re the innocent baby, Joe.”

That at least was true. Biden is no innocent baby; he knew he had to walk into this 90-minute gale-force-wind tunnel and stay on his feet. Trump’s volume might have been modulated, but his tone was not. Going into the debate, his job was to knock at least a few points off the substantial lead Biden holds in most polls — and the only way he had a hope of doing that was by throwing as many mud pies at him as he could, in the hopes one would stick.

But Biden, though he did grow visibly angry at times, addressed, defended and occasionally ignored the president’s missiles with a nimbleness that defied his reputation for gaffes and rhetorical clumsiness. He even managed to diffuse the criticism of his decision to sponsor the 1994 crime bill, which led to mass incarceration of Black men (often for minor crimes), with shocking simplicity: He admitted, "It was a mistake."

To which even the president, who may or may not have ever uttered those words in his life, had no reply.

Honestly, watching Biden navigate those 90 minutes was like watching a man carrying a tray filled with dinner dishes through a game of dodgeball on a muddy field (albeit one with an actual referee) and emerging on the other side with the salt barely spilled.

Did either man change anyone’s mind about whom they should vote for? Maybe, maybe not — those who are still undecided at this point seem an alien race to Trump and Biden supporters alike.

But Biden proved that whatever verbal stumbles plagued his past, he is now a man who cannot be thrown off his game, not even by the Great Disrupter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.