Op-Ed: Who had the worse campaign week, Biden or Trump?

Diptych of President Trump and Joe Biden in their respective TV town halls
President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in dueling town halls in Miami and Philadelphia.
(Associated Press)
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In this time of high political drama, we’ve asked Republican political strategist Scott Jennings and L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian to begin having a weekly discussion of how things are unfolding.

JENNINGS: OK, Robin, I’ll start us off. I don’t know how it looks to you, but from my vantage point, the Democrats have had a really bad week. We had a batch of Biden gaffes: forgetting what state he was in, forgetting Mitt Romney’s name, and mixing up Ted Kennedy with Robert Byrd. And whatever you think about the legitimacy of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden, it’s certainly a reminder that his Ukrainian and Chinese dealings while his father was vice president deserve more, not less, scrutiny.

There were also the Senate hearings on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. The Democrats didn’t exactly distinguish themselves with their questioning, and Barrett consistently ran circles around the best Democratic minds in the Senate without breaking a sweat.


And sure, Trump’s polling position sucks right now and Democrats have all the money, but no political strategist would put this week’s messaging on a whiteboard and say, “My masterpiece is complete!” They’d toss it in a dumpster and hope their boss never found the evidence.

ABCARIAN: Scott, right off the bat, you raise an existential question: What is worse — a gaffe, or a lie?

President Trump’s gushing fire hydrant of lies is so much more dangerous for the American people than Biden’s occasional slips about what office he is seeking. Do I wish Biden were 67, not 77? I do. But in the long run, I’ll take a serious, decent human being who believes in science over what we’ve got now.

As to Hunter Biden, I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, he displayed horrible judgment. But nothing in Rudy Giuliani’s dud of an October surprise indicts Hunter’s father. Even if you believe that these supposed emails are real and were recovered from a computer the younger Biden forgot to pick up at a repair shop — a big leap — they don’t add up to much. And personally, I enjoyed the history lessons offered by Democratic senators during the Barrett hearings.

Let’s look at some other stories in the news, too. The nation is suffering a third coronavirus spike, more Americans have plunged into poverty, Trump’s approval ratings remain in the toilet, the battleground states are slipping away, and there is still no national COVID strategy. I’m not seeing a Trump path to victory. Are you?

JENNINGS: Does Trump have a path to victory? Sure. Is he the favorite? No. He definitely has some problems. One is that voters don’t hate Joe Biden the way they hated Hillary, senior citizens are soft on Trump over the coronavirus, and women would just as soon throw a drink in his face as consider voting for him. But there are signs in voter registration trends that Trump may be stronger among working-class white men than Democrats realize. I feel the same way I did in 2016: A Trump victory is unlikely but possible.


ABCARIAN: You know, Scott, I think that 2016 taught Democrats a painful and unforgettable lesson about overconfidence, and so I do agree with you: Anything is possible. As for whether working-class white men will function as some sort of Trump secret weapon in November, I am not seeing it. Trump’s over-the-top promises may have been a balm to the economically battered souls of many struggling blue-collar folks, but I don’t see a revived coal industry, do you? Democrats will not take this bloc for granted ever again. Which is why you’ve seen Biden visiting Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, trying hard to rebuild the “blue wall” that Hillary allowed to crumble through neglect in 2016.

If I could change the subject for a moment, though, why aren’t we hearing more about immigration from Trump? It was his raison d’etre in 2016, but it seems to have fallen off the Republican radar. What the heck is up with that?

JENNINGS: Great question. Big blunder, in my opinion, to leave behind the issue that got you elected in the first place! Especially since, during the Democratic primary for president, every candidate — Biden included — advocated free healthcare for immigrants living in the country illegally. I have trouble thinking that most Americans want to see their tax dollars going to people living in flagrant violation of U.S. laws. And, more recently, Pelosi’s latest COVID relief bill would send billions in direct payments to undocumented immigrants. I can’t imagine why these things haven’t become the absolute centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, but for some reason he hasn’t opened these gifts bestowed upon him by the political gods. I suspect some Republican Senate campaigns will jump on immigration to boost conservative turnout as we approach election day, though.

But moving on, Robin: What’s your feeling about all the money liberal California donors are sending to U.S. Senate races around the country? Here in Kentucky, Amy McGrath, who has no chance of beating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has raised tens of millions from your neighbors. Same is true for Democrats everywhere. Are taxes not high enough out there or something?

ABCARIAN: Ha! Let me take your last question first. California is often the Democratic Party’s ATM for national campaigns. Apparently, we don’t mind paying our taxes and donating to causes we believe in! It’s hard to overstate the loathing that many Democrats feel for McConnell. We are still seething about his refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing when Obama nominated him to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. And we’re not crazy about how he obstructed Obama’s federal court appointments and refused to take up the hundreds of bills passed by a Democratic House. But I’ll give it to you that, yes, he is expected to win, and throwing money into that race doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense.

As for immigration, now that Trump has the Black Lives Matter movement to vilify, maybe he doesn’t feel he needs to bash immigrants as hard as he once did?


JENNINGS: OK, he’s calling for restoring order in the streets of American cities, and that is something a lot of Americans support. But back to immigration, certainly the Pelosi bill and the healthcare position reveal fresh, verifiable policy positions on the part of Democrats that are far more concrete and salient than the caravan argument Trump made in 2018. On another subject, do you think Thursday’s town halls changed anything?

ABCARIAN: I doubt the town halls will have much of an effect other than to burnish Savannah Guthrie’s journalistic cred. She pressed Trump hard on retweeting conspiracy theories, his refusal to denounce QAnon and his bizarre suggestion that the American people should decide whether SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden, because he wasn’t really sure. Huh? Biden finally revealed a perfectly acceptable position on court packing: He hasn’t decided yet. And you, Scott? How did you think the dueling town halls went?

JENNINGS: They were about what I expected. Trump was treated to an ornery and confrontational experience, while Biden got what he always gets from mainstream media engagements — softballs and snow cones. I ultimately don’t understand why NBC had people in the room, since the moderator dominated the night. Trump’s best moment was when he actually drew a policy contrast on taxes, and his worst was when he doubled down on his asinine SEAL Team 6 conspiracy theory retweet, which is just galactically stupid. For Biden, his evasiveness on court packing, his rambling response to the African American millennial gentleman and his apparent endorsement of allowing 8-year-old kids to engage in transgender therapy were lowlights. I don’t think the needle moved much for folks out there. I’ll give you the last word now, Robin: Will there be another debate this year, or ever?

ABCARIAN: Boy, I sure hope the presidential debates are over for this cycle. Not sure I could stomach another one.