Biden cleans up oil spill after debate, spotlighting Democratic divisions and governing challenges

Source: By James Hohmann, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2020

The congealing conventional wisdom across the mainstream media is that Thursday’s final debate was a draw and will not change the trajectory of a race that President Trump is losing. This is probably correct. But Joe Biden’s unforced error during the final segment in Nashville has handed valuable ammunition to the incumbent with 11 days to go.

During an extended discussion about climate change, Trump asked Biden: “Would you close down the oil industry?”

“Yes,” Biden said. “I would transition.”

“Oh, that’s a big statement,” said Trump.

“It is a big statement,” said Biden. “Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly. … It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time. … I’d stop giving to the oil industry. I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”

Trump grinned like a child on Christmas morning. “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry,” the president said. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?”

Biden responded that Trump takes “everything out of context” and that “we have to move toward net zero emissions.” Before he boarded his private jet for the flight home to Delaware, though, the pool of reporters that follows the former vice president was summoned over. Standing under the wing of his plane, Biden emphasized that he was talking about ending federal subsidies for the oil and gas industry and not calling for a ban on the fuels themselves. He added that his climate plan calls for the U.S. to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is 30 years away.

“We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels,” Biden said at the airport. “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.” Asked if that would mean millions of people in those industries would lose their jobs, Biden responded: “Well, they’re not going to lose their jobs. … And, besides, there are a lot more jobs that are going to be created in other alternatives.”

The Democratic nominee did not engage with reporters after the first debate in Cleveland. He had nothing to clean up. The fact that his team put him out there to clean up his comments seemed to reflect a recognition that his onstage gaffe could become problematic, especially in areas like western Pennsylvania. It was especially head-scratching because Biden has gone to great lengths this fall to say that he would not ban fracking outside of public lands.

Around 11:30 p.m., during a conference call for reporters in lieu of the traditional spin room, Biden deputy campaign manager Katie Bedingfield insisted that he was clearly talking about subsidies and noted that President George W. Bush also said in 2006 that the U.S. should move away from fossil fuels. “I think, you know, writ large, the idea of transitioning off of oil is nothing new,” she said.

Two House Democrats in competitive reelection contests quickly distanced themselves from Biden after the debate. Both Reps. Kendra Horn (Okla.) and Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.) flipped GOP-held seats in the 2018 midterms and represent districts that depend on oil extraction jobs:

During the debate, Trump accused Biden of supporting the Green New Deal legislation that has been co-sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which he referred to “AOC plus three.” Biden has expressed general support for bold action on climate change, but he has not specifically endorsed her plan. Ocasio-Cortez pushed back on the president’s comments by highlighting the broad support for her bill in Congress:

The daylight between Ocasio-Cortez on the left and Horn and Torres Small in the middle foreshadows potential governing challenges for Democrats should Biden take office next year. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly want to address climate change, but support goes down when you drill deep into particulars and emphasize the costs of such action. A decade ago, a bunch of House Democrats in coal country states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio lost their seats because they were pushed to vote for an unpopular cap-and-trade bill that never even came to the floor in the Senate.

Republicans are seizing on these tensions, including Trump’s former Energy secretary:

Trump has taken recently to claiming that he the best president for the environment since Teddy Roosevelt, which is not just false but laughably so. Much of what the president said about climate change during Thursday’s debate at Belmont University was preposterous. For example, he claimed Biden’s plan to fight climate change would cost $100 trillion. In fact, the Biden proposal is to spend $2 trillion over four years. He exaggerated what Biden has said about fracking. And Trump reiterated his own longstanding animosity toward renewables.

“I know more about wind than you do,” Trump told Biden. “It is extremely expensive, kills all the birds, it’s very intermittent, it’s got a lot of problems, and they happen to make the windmills in both Germany and China. And the fumes coming up, if you’re a believer in carbon emission, the fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we are talking about with natural gas.”

“Find me a scientist who says that,” said Biden.

“I love solar, but solar doesn’t quite have it yet,” Trump continued. “It is not powerful yet to really run our big, beautiful factories.”

This 12-minute tussle was the lengthiest exchange two presidential candidates have ever had on climate change.

Even Biden advisers admitted that Trump fared better in the second debate than the first. This is part of a historical pattern. Presidents often stumble in their first debate when running for reelection because they’re rusty and insulated before bouncing back in the second. This happened for Presidents Barack Obama in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004 and, most memorably, Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Behaving like an underdog, Trump was more disciplined than he has been in a while about trying to reclaim the outsider mantle that worked to his advantage in 2016. “He’s been in government 47 years,” Trump said of his opponent, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Almost every time Biden promised to do something as president, Trump responded with some variation of: “Why didn’t he do it four years ago?”

Trump also attacked Biden over the 1994 crime bill that he championed in the Senate and for not passing significant criminal justice reform as vice president. “You had eight years with Obama,” said Trump. “You’re all talk and no action.”

As compelling as this talking point might sound at first blush, though, Trump cannot credibly portray himself as an outsider anymore. He is a president who has serially mishandled the worst public health crisis since 1918, the worst economic crisis since 1933 and the worst racial unrest since 1968. No incumbent has ever been reelected to the White House with a job approval rating of 43 percent, which is where Gallup’s latest poll places him.

Biden noted at the top of the debate that more than 220,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus this year. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said.

Trump remained in denial and exaggerated the progress of vaccine development. “I take full responsibility, but China brought it here. It’s not my fault,” he said. When the president said people are “learning to live” with the coronavirus, Biden replied: “People are learning to die with it.”

Biden also pushed back hard on Trump’s efforts to caricature him as beholden to the wing of the party led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “He’s very confused,” Biden said of Trump. “He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”

Trump also seemed to confuse his opponents again. The president accused Biden of referring to Black people as “super predators.” That was a comment that Hillary Clinton made in the 1990s, which he got a great deal of mileage out of in 2016. But Trump is not running against Clinton.

There was no love lost between them. Trump referred to Biden derisively as “Joe.” Biden referred to Trump as “this guy.” When the president talked about race, Biden muttered: “Oh God.” 

The president often tried to attack Biden on both sides of the same issue. “At one point, Trump accused Biden of being too close to Wall Street because he’s raked in donations from bankers. … About an hour later, Trump went a different route, saying that the stock market would crash if Biden is elected, suggesting that the country’s financial institutions would be hostile to his presidency,” Annie Linskey observed.

For his part, Biden seemed to distance himself from his former boss during a discussion about the Obama administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. “It took too long to get it right,” Biden said, referring to the 2013 bill. But he said next time would be different: “I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president,” Biden said.

Trump often seemed to give the same answers he gave four years ago – before he became president. For example, he said he will release his tax returns as soon as he is no longer under audit and accused the IRS of treating him worse than the tea party. It’s almost word for word what he was saying in the summer of 2015.

The president failed to repeal Obamacare when the GOP had control of both chambers of Congress. Now his administration is asking the Supreme Court to throw out the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, and Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been outspoken in her criticism of the law. Against that backdrop, the president insisted that he is going to offer a great plan to replace the 2010 law – just like last time. “So I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand-new, beautiful health care,” he said.

Biden noted that Trump has made all these promises before. “He’s been talking about this for a long time,” Biden said. “He’s never come up with a plan. I guess we’re going to get the preexisting condition plan the same time we get the infrastructure plan that we waited for in ’17, ’18, ’19, ’20.”

Trump said he could pass a health-care overhaul in a second term because Republicans “might” control the House next year: “I think we’re going to win the House, you’ll see. But I think we’re going to win the House.” Handicappers don’t think the House is in play.

CNN’s instant poll of 585 debate watchers on Thursday found that 53 percent thought Biden won the matchup, while 39 percent thought Trump did. But, but, but: Biden’s margin over Trump is just 1 point wider than Clinton’s win over Trump in CNN’s poll of viewers after the final debate in 2016. And we know how that ended.