Good morning, and welcome to a special dueling-town-hall edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host. Stay tuned for Giovanni Russonello’s Poll Watch this afternoon.
It was “Washington Week” vs. “WWE Raw.” “The West Wing” vs. “Breaking Bad.” “This Old House” vs. “The Real Housewives.” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” vs. “You Can’t Do That on Television.” (With only metaphorical slime, of course.)
OK, you get the idea, I’m sure. Last night, we watched two very different shows.
On NBC, an aggrieved president perched on a stool, fought with the moderator, refused to rebuke dangerous conspiracy theories and spewed misinformation about a deadly pandemic.
A click away on ABC, Joe Biden offered detailed if long-winded policy discussions as he issued calls for national unity to a deeply divided nation.
These weren’t just different channels; they were different worlds.
Sure, some news was committed. Mr. Biden promised George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that he would clarify his views before Election Day on expanding the size of the Supreme Court, a notable pivot for a candidate who has refused to get into the issue.
And in an unusual choice, Mr. Biden engaged in the theoretical exercise of what would happen if he lost the election. A candidate’s standard answer to that question is, “I’m not going to lose.”
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Mr. Biden took a different approach.
“It could say I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job,” he said. “But I think — I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be.”
President Trump, meanwhile, was grilled by Savannah Guthrie of NBC News over a series of his dubious and outright false claims. When he said that data showed that 85 percent of people who wear masks still catch the coronavirus, Ms. Guthrie noted that he had falsely characterized a study.
When he tried to dance around the date of his last negative coronavirus test before his diagnosis — information that would clarify whom the president might have exposed and when — Ms. Guthrie’s questioning made it clear he was dodging.
“Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” he said, when pressed on whether he took a test on the day of his first debate with Mr. Biden.
And he professed ignorance about QAnon, the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory community whose bizarre claims that the world is run by a cabal of satanic pedophiles have been linked to real-world violence. This week, the president retweeted bonkers theories from several QAnon supporters.
His excuse boiled down to: Retweets don’t equal endorsements.
“I don’t get that,” Ms. Guthrie exclaimed. “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
At that exact moment, Mr. Biden was giving a detailed analysis of his tax plan, citing an analysis by Moody’s Analytics to assert that Democrats would create 18.6 million jobs and grow the gross domestic product by a trillion dollars more than under a Republican-controlled government.
It’s unclear who benefited from this bifurcated setup. American voters were forced to choose which event to watch, or to toggle, discordantly, between the two political universes.
In a way, the evening amounted to an accurate metaphor for where the country is politically. Polarized. Divided. And socially distanced.
But it would be nice, even in 2020, to expect the basics from our political system. Like, maybe a presidential debate you could watch without mastery of the remote control.
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