It was a tumultuous and fiery brawl in Cleveland. But was there a winner in the first presidential debate? Neither on substance nor style could we objectively declare either President Donald Trump or Vice President Joe Biden the winner. But Biden inadvertently did his campaign a tremendous disservice, not because he gave the wrong answer on defunding police, but because he gave the right one.
Biden has not always been clear nor especially proactive in declaring his position on the defund police movement. That’s been by design.
The progressive activist base of the Democratic party has been rallying, protesting and rioting for months with a goal of defunding the police. It’s a radical and dangerous idea. But given the popularity of the defund police movement within the Bernie Sanders wing of the party in particular, Biden has been hesitant to declare the idea DOA should he win the election. Biden needs to woo that voting bloc already suspicious of establishment Democrats.
Consequently, Biden hasn’t amplified his opposition to the defund movement. That is, until the debate where he was quite clear on the national stage: he doesn’t support it.
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“I’m totally opposed to defunding the police officers,” Biden declared defiantly. Perhaps too defiantly.
Surprisingly, Trump didn’t interrupt Biden. Intentionally or not, by standing there silently, Trump allowed for a clean and clear soundbite to blast out to the very voters Biden needs to deliver him the White House.
Biden’s comment wasn’t in a digital interview for his website. No one watches those. And it wasn’t in a one-off interview where he can answer quickly, then pivot to downplay what he just said. This was at a debate aired on every network. And there wasn’t a Sanders supporter who could have been happy.
Biden tried to explain what he supports vis-a-vis “reimaging policing” — a near-meaningless phrase Democrats adopted over the summer. But to the young voters who continue to rally on city streets, it means severely cutting police funding and reinvesting in communities of color. For some, it means literal community policing where departments are abolished.
Polls show the defund movement has little support. Biden, like Trump, is on the right side of this issue. But he needs the support of the Sanders base, the ones who didn’t show up to the polls for Hillary Clinton in 2016. They won’t ever be excited for Biden’s campaign.
Traditional Democrats, as ABC News’ Martha Raddatz pointed out this week, aren’t even excited for Biden. But he needs progressives to at least think he will adopt some of their positions. He just loudly declared that he won’t listen to their demands when it comes to the very issue they’re most passionate about.
If Trump’s strategy was to get Biden to publicly distance his campaign from radical ideas the Sanders crowd wants him to back, it was a huge success. And if played right, Trump should capitalize because Biden ended up pummelled and bloodied on the topic of law and order. He shouldn’t even earn the plaudits of undecided voters for his performance here.
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As Biden attempted to dive into his ideas on policing, which include an ill-conceived but well-intentioned plan to embed social workers with police, the president jumped in to contradict Biden.
“[Biden’s] talking about defunding the police,” Trump declared as if Biden hadn’t just said the opposite. “He doesn’t have any law [enforcement] support. Almost nothing.”
Biden said “that’s not true.” Trump, who has earned dozens of large police union endorsements, asked Biden to name one law enforcement group endorsing his campaign. Biden had no answer. To moderates and undecideds, Biden went from opposing the defund movement to having no law enforcement support. That’s not a good look.
Moderator Chris Wallace devastated the Biden campaign by asking the former vice president if he reached out to either the Democrat mayor of Portland or Governor of Oregon to ask them to clamp down on the 100+ nights of violent demonstrations and rioting. Biden replied he’s not in public office, so no.
But Biden’s campaign met Jacob Blake’s family and belatedly visited Kenosha to address civil unrest. Why intervene there, but not make a phone call to Democratic allies allowing their cities to be overtaken by Antifa agitators? It reminds voters, yet again, he’s not especially critical of Antifa.
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Not only did Biden alienate the activist base by rejecting the defund movement, but he didn’t even gain points with undecided voters by declaring strong opposition to the left-wing violence that engulfed American cities.
All he did was give Trump a lot of good soundbites to use on one of the topics the president’s campaign thinks gives them an edge.