Early Thursday evening, the nation faced three truths about the presidential race.
One was that Donald Trump needed to "change the trajectory." The second was that the imminent debate would be his last chance. The third was that national polls didn't matter and that only a few strategic spots
We've been reminded twice already this century that our presidents aren't picked by the people nationwide democratically, but by states as winner-take-all provinces. Presidents are elected inordinately by voters in rural areas within battleground states where residents living on sparse expanses and working off the land rather than in office towers get more electoral college bang for their votes than city dwellers.
No one mattered more in America as the debate began than an undecided rural voter living near a gas-fracking site in the battleground of Pennsylvania.
So, a couple of hours later, shortly before the debate was to end with Trump having changed no trajectory and Joe Biden having escaped unscathed toward proceeding to victory, a probably fatigued Biden answered a question about climate change, which he shouldn't have done.
He answered in an honest and responsible way that attracts irrelevant nationwide support but scares those residents of stark expanses living off the land in battleground states.
Biden said we need to end subsidies to the oil industry as part of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. That's a simple fact.
But Trump's essence is standing for nothing except self-serving exploitation of political vulnerability in others. And he pounced.
He said Biden had said he was going to shut down the oil industry. He asked Texas, Oklahoma--and Pennsylvania--if they were listening.
Texas and Oklahoma are not vital in the presidential race. They are oil states but not decider states.
On the other hand, there is the game, also known as Pennsylvania.
It only is the single-most important state in this election. It is Biden's firewall against losing Florida. And, at this point, the single-most important part of Pennsylvania is the "Alabama" that James Carville once called its rural expanse between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
They're conservative out there. They're fracking folks. To disrespect oil in favor of renewable sources is, to their ears, to attack hydraulic fracturing for gas as well as oil. And fracking for gas is a major job-creator and meal-ticket in the Alabama region of Pennsylvania.
A simple rule of winning politics is to advocate for a chicken in every pot, not threaten employment.
In 2016, those areas of Pennsylvania voted in sufficient numbers for Trump that he upset Clinton by a scant 44,000 votes and took all 20 of those undemocratic electoral votes, and thus the presidency.
Even before the debate, union leaders in Pennsylvania were endorsing Biden, as all union leaders are, but saying they understood that some members worried about an end to fracking didn't agree and would vote differently.
Amid that shakiness, Biden basically invited the rural conservatives of Pennsylvania who lifted Trump to the presidency over Hillary Clinton to dance an encore on his head.
Am I saying Biden should have told less than the whole and important truth about how the nation must adapt to climate change?
That's exactly what I'm saying. Punting is a part of football and politics. Even a pooch-kick has its place.
A nationally televised debate two weeks before his election against a horrid president was no occasion for Biden to risk frightening rural Pennsylvanians.
His hailing from Scranton, Pa., and his good-ol'-Joe hometown appeal to rural Pennsylvania ... that's the very essence of his Democratic nomination. He stood on the debate stage precisely because he was seen as the Democrats' best contender in rural Pennsylvania.
He should have said that, unlike the malfeasant Trump, he knows climate change is real and that as president he must lead toward developing renewable energy resources, and will do so. But then he should have stressed that he is not talking about taking away anyone's livelihood.
He should have said that conversion to renewable energy is not a job-killer but a job-creator, and that the market forces he thought Republicans trusted must be permitted to work naturally over decades.
Am I saying it would have been better for Joe to irk Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez than to fuel Trump? Yes. A thousand times yes.
Here's how you know Joe messed up: His campaign assembled reporters on the tarmac for his late-night departure after the debate so that Joe could come over and say what he should have said in the debate--that fossil fuels would remain in the nation's energy mix for decades.
Republicans had an attack ad online by morning.
On Saturday, The New York Times headline told the story: "Trump travels to three states as Biden focuses on Pennsylvania."
The offensive one was on offense. The fatigued truth-telling one was on defense.
Biden could have been coasting, but instead he was clarifying.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.