Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the final presidential debate of the 2020 campaign.
Last night was the final debate before Election Day. With polling continuing to indicate an advantage for Biden, did Donald Trump do anything that will boost his campaign?
As was reported ubiquitously in advance, Trump’s political allies had begged him to avoid the train wreck of the first debate by following a simple instruction for the finale: Stop interrupting so that “Sleepy Joe” will drone on and self-destruct with a disqualifying gaffe that will reveal him to be in the grip of dementia, Sanders socialism, or both. Trump, under the thumb of a mute button, did more or less as he was told, for which he was predictably rewarded with raves by the same GOP operatives whose direction he followed. Anyone not grading on a curve could see that the debate changed nothing and that arguably the tactic of letting Biden speak uninterrupted helped Biden more than Trump.
As the first debate defined Trump indelibly as a childish bully and a boor while leaving Biden on the cutting-room floor, this one gave Biden the space to actually make his case at the moment when Americans are pouring into their polling places. He hit his points crisply, and for the most part cogently, lacing his pitch for competence and national unity with just the right dose of tranquilizing retro Senate-speak that many Americans are welcoming after four years of nonstop White House rage and bombast.
Meanwhile, on the matters of substance that theoretically might allow Trump to win over that tiny contingent of wavering voters, “suburban housewives” included, Trump still had done no homework and had no answers — just the usual smokescreen of evasions and lies. No health-care plan to rescue those who stand to lose their coverage if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act. No explanation for his failure to negotiate a new stimulus package. No explanation for why he won’t release his tax returns. No defense of his undying love affair with Vladimir Putin. And most of all, still no plan to combat the coronavirus on a day when the number of new American cases, by some counts, hit an all-time high. He argued once again that we are “rounding the turn” and that a cure-all vaccine, like prosperity, was just around the corner.
Almost 50 million people had voted before last night’s face-off — more early voters than in the entire pre-Election Day balloting of 2016. There was nothing either candidate said that the remaining voters have not heard ad infinitum by now, with the possible exception of Trump’s defense for ripping away 545 children from parents who cannot be found: These orphans “are so well taken care of,” he explained with pride. There are still ways Trump can somehow cobble together an Electoral College victory, as FiveThirtyEight reminds us, but this debate won’t move that needle.
As my colleague Olivia Nuzzi pointed out, Trump’s one-off adherence to debate protocol prevented him from speaking in the “rambling and insane-sounding” manner of his superspreader rallies. But now those rallies are roaring back. And so will the insanity. Thanks to the White House’s self-immolating, unauthorized release of his 60 Minutes interview, we already know that on Sunday night a large viewership will see him snarl repeatedly at Lesley Stahl and whine like a crybaby when asked unsurprising questions comparable to those asked by last night’s moderator, Kristen Welker. And once again Trump will be seen in striking contrast to Biden, who presumably behaved himself in an interview conducted for the same broadcast and didn’t storm off in pique at his female questioner (Norah O’Donnell).
On the stump, it will be all Hunter Biden all the time — a conspiracy theory so impenetrable that last night Trump had to convey it in buzzwords and phrases (“the laptop,” “the horrible emails,” “10 percent to the big man,” “selling pillows and sheets”). This lingo could be decoded only by those already locked into the coverage by the acre pumped out by Murdoch outlets: Fox News, and compliant columnists like Michael Goodwin at the New York Post and Kimberley Strassel at the Wall Street Journal. The chances that any of this ostensible scandal will reach, let alone persuade, any voters not already voting for Trump are nil. What’s more, in an extraordinary development just minutes after the debate last night, the Journal’s news pages pulled the rug out from under its own editorial-page propagandists by posting an investigative report debunking the entire affair. Examining those “horrible emails” Trump had been fuming about, the paper found no evidence that Joe Biden had anything to do with an unconsummated business deal his son was trying to make in China in 2017 (when both Bidens, by the way, were private citizens).
But Trump will not let go of “Huntergate” any more than he did the equally inexplicable “Obamagate.” He will designate even Murdoch as a purveyor of Fake News rather than surrender it. And he will continue to go off on other loony and narcissistic tangents, tantrums, and personal vendettas that are irrelevant to Americans in the midst of public-health and economic crises — all the while speaking to closely packed, unmasked audiences (which he described to Stahl, hilariously, as “much bigger than we ever had”) in some of the most lethal current hot spots of the pandemic.
Many Republicans and conservatives — like Peggy Noonan, who judged Trump last night’s winner — are clinging to a single poll query as a sign of a possible upset: a Gallup finding that 56 percent of registered voters feel they are better off now than they were four years ago. Should that one data point prove to be determinative in the face of all the other polling on this race, 2020 will be the biggest debacle for American pollsters since 1936, when the Literary Digest predicted that Alf Landon would be the victor over FDR, whose landslide propelled him to victory in 46 out of 48 states.