Alan Zendell, October 23, 2020
Donald Trump spent most of this week demonstrating that he hasn’t lost a step when it comes to dominating the news cycle. Would he show up for the final debate with Joe Biden? Would he release the White House’s recording of Leslie Stahl’s Sixty Minutes interview (and in doing so violate their contract with CBS) due to air on October 25th? Would he order Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray to announce a formal investigation into Hunter Biden’s laptops?
The answers are yes, yes, and no. For once, listening to advice from his campaign people, Trump wore his civilized human being persona to the debate, civilized in that he didn’t behave like a predatory animal. He actually followed the rules, helped greatly by no-nonsense moderator Kristin Welker, but I must stipulate that the debate rules did not require that a candidate tell the truth or refrain from making things up. What struck me most about Trump’s relatively meek reaction to Welker was what it said about his behavior at the first debate. He was roundly criticized for being unhinged in Cleveland, but the self-control he exhibited last night tells us that he wasn’t at all unhinged the first time. His bullying and interrupting were part of a deliberate, choreographed, strategy. I can’t decide which is worse.
Trump posted the thirty-eight minute interview with Stahl on Facebook yesterday, with the comment: “look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse!” The New York Times commented that “the footage shows Ms. Stahl…calmly and firmly asking the president about the coronavirus and other topics as Mr. Trump grows increasingly irritated.” If you have a half-hour to kill, click on the link and see for yourself. Whether or not he meant it, during last night’s debate, Trump complimented Welker on the way she handled it.
While at times, Bill Barr has seemed to relish the role of presidential lapdog, Cristopher Wray has displayed professionalism and independence since Trump appointed him. Despite Trump’s angry tweet “ARREST SOMEONE!” earlier this week, neither Barr nor Wray was willing to trash his own reputation with the laptop conspiracy theory after it was revealed that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani had been punked by a Russian agent. But that didn’t stop Trump from bringing it up four times during the debate. Biden, who could have commented on the business practices of the Trump and Kushner families, instead told Trump, “This isn’t about our families. It’s about suffering American families.”
Trump spent the debate repeating his Fox News talking points. As he was at his rallies, he seemed more interested in evoking cheers from his base than expanding it. Instant polls following the debate showed an average twelve-point preference for Biden’s performance, which is right in line with the margin in recent national presidential polls. It’s difficult to imagine that any undecided voters found Trump’s threats, lies, and inability to offer any details about what a second term would look like compelling enough to change their minds.
For what it’s worth, virtually every commentator concluded that the debate did not affect the trajectory of the election. Compared to 2016, with eleven days until Election Day, Biden’s lead appears more sustainable than Hillary Clinton’s, and he will apparently not have to deal with a last-minute October surprise. Note the silence emanating from the Justice Department. Last time, Trump was able to weaponize people who felt left out by Democrats into an angry mob that swept him into office. This time, independents and many Republican seniors are angry at Trump over his abysmal handling of the pandemic. And while Hillary Clinton was a lightning rod for the right wing hate machine, Joe Biden is too well known and too decent a man for them to get their teeth in him.
Only a massive breakdown of the electoral process or a thoroughly co-opted Supreme Court offers Trump any hope of being re-elected. Even though undecided voters don’t have strong opinions about either candidate’s ideology or feel a bond with either of them, it’s clear that Joe Biden’s long record of compassion and a willingness to admit previous mistakes and commit to correcting them has great appeal for people who have been living in fear all year and are still worried about how to pay rent and put food on the table. Add to that the spectacle of rushing the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice who Trump expects to support his attacks on Obamacare and mail-in voting, and even Vladimir Putin won’t be able to change the outcome.