Maybe it was inevitable that 2016 would come to this: With two weeks to go in the presidential campaign, the Republican nominee and the Democratic vice president are talking openly about getting into a fight.
Four days after Vice President Joe Biden first raised that hypothetical when talking about Donald Trump’s comments about women, Trump responded in kind Tuesday night in Tallahassee, Florida.
“Did you see where Biden wants to take me to the back of the barn? Me. He wants it. I’d love that. I’d love that,” Trump said. “You know, he’s Mr. Tough Guy. You know when he’s Mr. Tough Guy? When he’s standing behind a microphone by himself. That’s when he’s — he wants to bring me to the back of the barn. Oh! Some things in life you could really love doing. ...
Trump added: “And by the way, if I said that, they’d say, ‘He’s violent. How could he have done that?’ ”
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And here’s the thing: On that last part, Trump completely has a point.
Trump supporters have been complaining for days now that the media gave Biden a pass for his comment last Friday about taking Trump “behind the gym.”
“What he said he did and does is a textbook definition of sexual assault,” Biden said. “I wish we were in high school. I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”
Biden didn’t clearly say he was talking about physical violence against Trump, but it was an unmistakable reference. From the vice president of the United States.
Biden isn’t backing off what he said, even laughing about it in an interview with “Hardball” on Tuesday and explaining that he meant only if they were in high school. That might not be a tenable position.
And as Trump argued, if he had said such a thing first and started the feud, it’s very likely it would have blown up much more quickly. No doubt about it.
But is that because, as Trump and his supporters believe, the media is biased against Trump? Many Americans will surely think that’s the case. In fact, 55 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released last week said they thought the media was biased against Trump.
But there are clearly other reasons that Biden’s comments didn’t take off in the way they would have if Trump first mused about challenging him to a fight.
The first is the context. Biden was talking about Trump’s comments about and alleged conduct toward women that Biden said amounted to “sexual assault.” If Biden had mused about fighting Trump because Trump wants to repeal Obamacare or disagrees with the Trans-Pacific Partnership — or just because he doesn’t like him — it would have come off as more over-the-top. He was responding to something he labeled as a crime that victimized women. There are passions involved in that.
The second is that Trump is running for president; Biden isn’t. His temperament isn’t on the ballot in 2016.
And the third is that this isn’t part of a pattern of behavior for Biden; it would have been for Trump. Trump has a well-documented history of talking about, winking at and even appearing to justify physical violence. As The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson wrote:
“When it comes to violence at his rallies, Trump often tells his crowds to not harm protesters who interrupt him — but he has also offered to pay the legal expenses of supporters who attack protesters, praised a supporter who punched a protester dressed in a Ku Klux Klan hood and criticized the police for handling protesters too gingerly. When a Black Lives Matter activist was harmed at a Trump rally in Birmingham, Ala., in November, Trump said that the man was ‘so obnoxious and so loud’ that ‘maybe he should have been roughed up.’”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said last month that Trump had told her “he thought the violence added a frisson of excitement.”
Then there was the time Trump mused about what might happen to Hillary Clinton if her security detail didn’t have guns: “Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, OK? It would be very dangerous.” He also suggested “the Second Amendment people” might have something to say about preventing Clinton from appointing her judges as president.
Given all of that, it would have been harder to play off Trump saying what Biden did as a moment of passion — a one-off that might have gone too far but otherwise wasn’t a big story.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Biden’s comment was ill-advised, unhelpful and probably undersold — especially with Democrats making the case that Trump is uniquely unfit for the temperamental demands of the presidency.