Here’s what happened:
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: “He takes everything out of context. But the point is, we have to move toward a net zero emissions. The first place to do that by the year 2035 is in energy production. By 2050: Totally.”
Biden’s “yes” answer to closing down the oil industry was potentially serious enough for him to try to clarify his remarks to reporters later at the airport. He said he would stop giving money to the oil industry, rather than close it down entirely: “We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels. We’re going to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.”
The above statement might still be used as an attack by Trump, who could distort it to claim Biden is open to finding ways to shutter one of the most powerful industries in America. But Trump doesn’t have to try to work with just Biden’s second statement; Biden initially answered in the affirmative when asked if he would close the oil industry, even if he tried to clarify it later and stress that none of his changes would happen right away.
The problem for Biden is that he is running against someone ready and willing to pounce on any perceived mistake — see Hillary Clinton’s emails — and amplify them as loudly as possible, even if or when it gets away from the facts.
It calls to mind how, at a Democratic primary debate, Biden said “no new fracking.” It might be a popular thing to say in a Democratic primary, but not in a general election, where fracking is a significant employer in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas. His campaign clarified immediately afterward that he wants no new fracking permits on public lands, a position that would let most fracking continue. “I am not banning fracking,” Biden felt the need to say in Pittsburgh months later, in September.
To this day — even at this final debate — Trump seizes on that one line from that one March debate to inaccurately describe Biden’s position. “He was against fracking, he said it,” Trump claimed Thursday night.
Now Trump may have something stronger to work with.
Still, Biden saying he would close down the oil industry in a national presidential debate may not be the gold nugget Trump is looking for. As The Washington Post’s climate team reports, fossil fuels that Biden wants to stop federally subsidizing are contributors to climate change. Americans’ anxieties about climate change are high. Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, derechos in Iowa are all prompting more attention to scientists’ warnings that in about a decade, without action, the planet will be irreversibly, catastrophically damaged.
A 2019 Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that two-thirds of Americans say Trump is doing too little on climate change, and about half said action is urgently needed in the next decade. That’s consistent with what Biden regularly says. (“Global warming is an existential threat to humanity,” he said Thursday. “We have a moral obligation to deal with it. And we’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time.”)
Americans’ climate concerns have continued throughout the pandemic. An October Pew Research Center survey found that 68 percent of voters said climate change is a very or somewhat important factor in their decision on whom to vote for.
On climate change, perhaps even more so than any other campaign issue, the contrast between Biden and Trump is stark. Biden has put together a climate plan to transition America to clean energy by 2050. Trump has been one of the most anti-climate-change presidents ever, describing it as a “hoax” and pulling out of a major international agreement to lower emissions. Some Republican strategists have been worrying in recent years that their party could lose voters if they don’t turn around on this issue quickly.
But both candidates are insulated somewhat by partisanship. That Pew survey found climate change ranks as very important for 68 percent of Biden voters. It ranks last in importance for most Trump voters. To the extent Trump bashes Biden on his oil comments, he may just be speaking to his own supporters already. And the same goes for Biden as he talks about dealing with climate change.
Biden’s comments could reverberate below him, though. Two vulnerable House Democrats in oil-producing states, Kendra Horn in Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, immediately distanced themselves from Biden on this.
Biden handed Trump an opening in Thursday’s debates to raise doubts about the Democrat in swing states, especially Pennsylvania, which strategists on both sides see as the potential tipping-point state this November. As Democrats learned in 2016, margins matter.
But public opinion is also on Biden’s side on the larger question of dealing aggressively with climate change. And then there’s the fact that no issue — not even the economy — has been able to rise above the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s handling of it.