At first glance, the final presidential debate might have seemed to some like a draw. President Trump had arguably his best debate performance ever and did not alienate the reluctant Trump voters by interrupting or badgering his opponent. Former vice president Joe Biden’s four days of rest and preparation paid off, as he spoke clearly and had no senior moments that might call his mental acuity into question.
But a closer look shows that Trump was the big winner, because he was the only candidate who landed blows that damaged his opponent with a constituency Biden desperately needs to win the presidency — African American voters. On Thursday night, Trump cleaned Biden’s clock on race.
Moderator Kristen Welker asked both candidates whether they understood the fears of Black and brown families who worry their children “could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin.” When it was Trump’s turn to answer, he said “Yes, I do” and laid out his record, including opportunity zones to bring investment into struggling Black communities, substantial funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, prison reform and criminal justice reform. By contrast, he said, Biden has “been in government for 47 years. He never did a thing except in 1994 when he did such harm to the Black community” with his crime bill.
Biden responded by trying to take credit for Trump’s success on criminal justice reform, saying “The very law he’s talking about is the law that, in fact, initiated by Barack Obama.” But Trump kept pressing him on why he and Obama didn’t pass it? “You were vice president,” Trump said. “You keep talking about all these things you’re going to do … but you were there just a short time ago and you guys did nothing.”
Biden tried to change the subject with a snide remark, noting “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one.” Trump replied calmly, “I didn’t say I’m Abraham Lincoln. I said, not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the black community. Now you have done nothing other than the crime bill, which put tens of thousands of black men mostly in jail. And you know what? They remember it. … they remember that you treated them very, very badly.”
Rather than let Biden off the hook, Welker pressed him to answer Trump’s question: “Vice President Biden, let me give you a chance to respond within this context. Crime bills that you supported in the ’80s and ’90 contributed to the incarceration of tens of thousands of young black men who had small amounts of drugs in their possession. They are sons, they are brothers, they’re fathers, they’re uncles whose families are still, to this day, some of them suffering the consequences. So, speak to those families, why should they vote for you?”
Biden conceded, “It was a mistake. I’ve been trying to change it since then.” Trump jumped on that, saying that trying was not good enough. “But why didn’t he get it done? See, it’s all talk, no action with these politicians. Why didn’t he get it done?” When Biden tried to deflect by pointing out that he and Obama released 38,000 federal prisoners and granted clemency to over 1,000, Trump kept pressing. “Why didn’t you do it in the eight years, a short time ago? … You put tens of thousands of mostly Black young men in prison …. Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years with Obama. You know why, Joe? Because you’re all talk and no action.”
Finally, Biden delivered a feeble answer: “Because we had a Republican Congress. That’s the answer.” Sorry, but when he and Obama took office in 2009, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and they had a 60-vote filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate for parts of 2009 and 2010. Republicans didn’t win back the House until 2010 and didn’t retake the Senate until 2014. Obama and Biden could have passed anything.
Why was this extended exchange so damaging? Because Biden has an enthusiasm problem with Black voters. One of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 is because the Obama coalition did not turn out for her. Biden was supposed to energize those voters, but according to CNN, Biden’s support among Black voters, a key part of that coalition, is smaller than Clinton’s was in 2016. And The Post reported in late May that only 68 percent of young African Americans aged 18 to 29 said they intend to vote for Biden — 17 points fewer than supported Clinton four years ago.
On Thursday, Trump successfully reminded these voters of Biden’s role in the mass incarceration of African Americans — and how Biden failed, and Trump succeeded, in passing criminal justice reform to end it. That exchange could have a lasting impact on Election Day.
Marc Thiessen writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on foreign and domestic policy. He is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is a Fox News contributor.