Joe Biden has been relatively quiet. Unlike most challengers, who trail the incumbent and have to attack, Biden has steadily led President Donald Trump in polls. So Trump has been doing the attacking, while Biden—aware that Trump’s attacks are largely impotent and self-destructive—has rarely felt the need to fight back. But Biden is well equipped to counterattack, and at a CNN town hall on Thursday night, he showed how he’d do it. It’s a preview of how their debates might go. Here are some of the topics Biden covered.
1. Violence vs. virus. In the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has dumped responsibility for testing and protective equipment on governors. He has accused Biden of violating freedom and local control by suggesting a federal mandate to wear masks. But on a different topic, violent unrest in cities, Trump takes the opposite approach: He threatens to send in federal forces (in some cases, he has actually done it), and he boasts that he has used that threat to force governors to call in the National Guard. That raises a question: If Trump thinks a few deaths in protest-related violence justify a forceful federal response, why does he shrink from responding that way to a disease that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans?
At the town hall, Biden targeted that paradox. He noted that universal use of masks would save around 100,000 lives, according to projections. “I would call every governor in the country into the White House [and] say, ‘You should be putting mandates out,’ ” he said. “And if they don’t, I’d call the mayors in their towns and their cities and say, ‘Put out mandates.’ ” Biden said he would impose his own mask mandate on federal land and in federal buildings. He left it to Trump to explain why the federal government, while invading cities, should let hundreds of thousands of Americans die of the plague.
2. Freedom to live a normal life. The town hall moderator, Anderson Cooper, asked Biden about Attorney General William Barr’s complaint that stay-at-home orders violated civil liberties. Cooper noted that Barr had compared such orders to slavery, and he asked Biden about similar objections to mask mandates. Biden explained that he didn’t advocate a nationwide lockdown and that coronavirus restrictions should vary according to local prevalence of the disease. But then he went on the attack.
Biden savaged Barr’s tasteless comparison of temporary stay-at-home orders to slaves who were “put in chains.” He also argued for masks as a civic obligation: “It’s not to protect you so much as to make sure you don’t infect someone else. I call that a patriotic requirement.” But Biden moved on to a larger point. The pandemic, he explained, has taken away “the freedom of your kid to go to school, the freedom to see your mom or dad in the hospital, the freedom just to walk around your neighborhood.” By wearing masks, we can get those freedoms back. By resisting masks, Trump is imprisoning us in our homes.
3. Politics vs. science. Lately, Trump has accused Democrats of opposing science and progress because they worry about his pressure to rush out a vaccine. At the town hall, Biden deflected that attack by distinguishing between Trump and his health advisers, led by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I don’t trust the president on vaccines,” said Biden. “I trust Dr. Fauci. If Fauci says the vaccine is safe, I take the vaccine. … We should listen to the scientists, not to the president.” Biden also praised Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for advocating masks in spite of Trump’s complaints about them. And Biden scolded Barr, along with Trump, for sniping at “recommendations of the scientific community.”
4. Right-wing militias. Responding to questions about unrest and crime, Biden defended the integrity of police, distinguished protests from looting and burning, and pointed out that violent crime had declined in the Obama-Biden years. “Violence of any kind, no matter who it is coming from, is wrong,” he said. “People should be held accountable [for] burning down automobile lots, smashing windows, setting buildings on fire.”
Then he turned the question on Trump. “This is Donald Trump’s America,” he said. He noted that Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, had said on TV that chaos and violence were good for Trump because they elevated the president’s campaign issue—“law and order”—in voters’ minds. Biden also noted that Trump was inciting violence, and he challenged the president to speak out against it. “The president is yet to condemn … the far-right and the white supremacists and those guys walking around with the AK-47s,” said Biden.
5. Wall Street. Trump talks a lot about the stock market soaring under his presidency. But Biden noted that many people don’t own stocks. He called attention to underpaid health care workers, demanded a $15 minimum wage, and said the presidential election was “between Scranton and Park Avenue.” “All that Trump could see from Park Avenue is Wall Street,” said Biden. He noted that he’d be “the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president.” He bristled at “guys like Trump, who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited,” and who “look down their nose at us.”
6. Respecting the military. Trump associates himself with veterans, the flag, and defense spending. But he’s vulnerable on this topic: He used deception to avoid the Vietnam draft, criticized then-Sen. John McCain for having been “captured,” and, according to multiple sources quoted in the Atlantic, has called Americans who fought and died in wars “losers” and “suckers.” At the town hall, Biden blasted Trump for using those terms to disparage “guys like my son,” who “won the Bronze Star” in Iraq. He also noted that several generals, including some who served under Trump, had denounced Trump for abusing the military to tear-gas American protesters.
Biden didn’t face any stiff rebuttals on Thursday night. The attendees posed questions and then listened politely, while Cooper asked follow-ups but didn’t press hard. In the debates, Trump will be much more aggressive. Biden might let many of these attacks go unanswered because Trump talks fast, lies a lot, and alienates viewers with gratuitous venom. But the town hall showed that if Biden needs to throw a counterpunch, he’s got plenty he can deliver.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus