Biden’s Character Campaign

Joe Biden and Donald Trump debate on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

Photo: Morry Gash/Bloomberg News

President Trump came to the second and last presidential debate Thursday night trying to pin down Joe Biden on his policies and family’s business with foreign governments. Mr. Biden did his best to parry and duck, coming back time and again to his main themes of “character” and an end to divisive politics. With a solid lead, and more than 40 million votes already cast, Mr. Biden’s bet is that he can run out the clock.

Mr. Trump was both better prepared and more disciplined than in the first debate, and if he loses on Nov. 3 he will wish he had done that the first time. He offered the best defense we’ve heard him make of his coronavirus effort, focusing on the vaccines in development, his mobilization of resources in the spring, and the need to balance protection of the vulnerable with reopening the country.

Mr. Biden is his most demagogic when he addresses the virus, saying at one point that “anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President.” We’ve criticized Mr. Trump’s inconsistent and sometimes Panglossian rhetoric, but calling him responsible for every American death is neither honest nor decent. Mr. Biden’s “plan” on Covid is essentially Mr. Trump’s with more prudent rhetoric and a warning to wear a mask. On potential future lockdowns, Mr. Trump says no while Mr. Biden says maybe.

Mr. Trump tried to make the economy an issue but the moderator never gave it much chance to be joined. Mr. Biden revealed the truth about his climate policy when he said he wants to eliminate the oil business, and voters should take him seriously. He also signaled that, while he won’t immediately ban fracking, he will punish it with regulation. Mr. Trump is right that U.S. carbon emissions are lower on his watch, thanks to natural gas. If you’re working in fossil fuels, or an industry that relies on them, Mr. Biden really is coming for your job.

The President brought up the new evidence that Mr. Biden’s son Hunter traded on his father’s name to court sketchy Chinese investors. It’s a fair question, though Mr. Trump went overboard and accused Mr. Biden of enriching himself personally. That gave Mr. Biden the chance to deny that he had ever taken a cent from any foreign business.

But the claim, backed now by documents and the account of Hunter’s would-be business partner, Tony Bobulinski, is that Joe knew about Hunter’s dealings and even met with Mr. Bobulinski. Joe Biden has said he never spoke with Hunter about his business interests, yet the emails and texts clearly show the opposite.

Mr. Biden’s first response was to say Mr. Trump hasn’t released his tax returns and must be hiding something. Then he dismissed the story as Russian disinformation, for which there is no evidence. Mr. Biden and the campaign haven’t denied that the emails are genuine, or that Joe Biden met with Mr. Bobulinski.

The Biden braintrust probably figures that most of the press won’t pursue the story, and that he can ride it out without elaboration through Election Day. They may be right, though they have to hope no more contradictory evidence emerges. Mr. Biden has placed his bet that a campaign based almost entirely on character and Covid-19 is enough to take the White House. It’s paid off—so far.

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Appeared in the October 23, 2020, print edition.

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