The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden showed why wavering conservatives are nervous about voting for him

Democratic candidate Joe Biden gestures while speaking during the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Much of America went to bed after Tuesday night’s debate feeling as if they had been “slimed,” to borrow a phrase from “Ghostbusters.” As repulsed as many rightly feel by President Trump’s boorish and at times unhinged performance, former vice president Joe Biden did not cover himself with glory, either. Worse, he showed many wavering conservatives and moderates why they feel uneasy about giving him the keys to the Oval Office.

Biden’s biggest problem is his party’s left. He knows that, which is why he repeatedly distanced himself from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Medicare-for-all plan. On those points, he was reassuring to people who are willing to tolerate some drift to the left but not a wholesale lurch.

On other matters, Biden raised as many questions as he tried to settle. Take the matter of expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court — a.k.a. “court-packing” — that many in his party have proposed. Despite historically rejecting the idea, he now refuses to say whether he supports it, saying it will be a "distraction” from the issue of Trump’s appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But that’s not a distraction — it’s an essential question for Americans to weigh as they decide whom to support. If Biden won’t risk angering his left when the chips are down now, how can Americans who don’t want to see the court packed trust him to resist their push after he’s inaugurated?

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (Video: The Washington Post)

What to know about the 2020 presidential debates

Biden’s statements on climate change were also not reassuring. He said that no more coal- or oil-powered electricity-generating plants would be built in the United States, and that he would lead the transition away from fossil fuels. Nearly 7 million Americans work in the fossil fuel industry, whether they extract the fuels from the ground, transport them to refineries or gas stations, or own those stations themselves. As of 2016, there were an estimated 111,000 gas stations in the United States, almost all of which are independently owned small businesses that would be wiped out under a rapid transition to electric cars. Biden’s claims that green energy will produce good-paying jobs for all is nonsense. Even if it weren’t, the shift in employment would devastate communities built around fossil fuels. Anyone who works in those fields or lives in those communities has every reason to be scared by a Biden presidency.

Most outlandish was the bait-and-switch Biden tried to pull on his leadership of the Democratic Party. He tried to refute Trump’s claim that he would be in hock to the party’s left wing by saying “I am the Democratic Party,” a claim of undemocratic omnipotence that would be roundly condemned if Trump were to say that about the Republicans. A few minutes later, however, Biden refused to answer moderator Chris Wallace’s question on whether he had called the Democratic mayor of Portland or Oregon’s Democratic governor to try to persuade them to call in the National Guard to end what he said was more than 100 straight days of often violent protests. “I don’t hold public office,” Biden demurred. If he took his role as self-proclaimed leader of the Democratic Party seriously, he would have instantly been on the phone to convey his belief that violence was hurting the country and his campaign. That’s cowardice, not leadership.

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There are millions of Republican-leaning voters who are tortured by this election. We’ve seen it in the polls for four years: When Trump does outrageous things, his poll ratings drop from the mid-40s to the high-30s or low-40s. But then Trump’s awfulness fades, and those voters are left with the stark fact that even under Biden’s “leadership,” the Democratic Party is moving away from its policy preferences. They always keep coming back to Trump, more out of fear of the Democrats than love for Trump.

Power Ranking: Here’s how Trump and Biden scored in the debate — if you can call it that

Biden could have put a stop to that pattern. He could have genuinely called for national unity in the face of what he calls a struggle for the soul of our nation. That, however, would have required him to make policy concessions to the center-right to make them less fearful of Democratic control. Instead, these voters see calls for unity as a masked call for their surrender. A prime example of this was Biden surrogate John Kasich, a former Republican governor of Ohio, recently saying that pro-lifers should put aside their beliefs for unity’s sake. That attitude will neither unite the country nor drive down Trump’s support.

Trump’s behavior Tuesday night was a national disgrace. Biden’s suggests that the long national nightmare we’ve endured for years won’t end soon.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump’s message to wavering voters: Go ahead and vote for Biden

Helaine Olen: The horrific debate shows exactly why Trump shouldn’t get a second term

Jennifer Rubin: The media keeps making these cringeworthy mistakes

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s scorched-earth nihilism will cost him the presidency

Matt Bai: Joe Biden outperforms the performer president