The Presidential Thunderdome

Countdown Journal: 35 days To Go

We wake up knowing that today could be a decisive day in the presidential campaign. Or at least we hope that it is, because we are so desperate for something — almost anything — to provide some clarity.

Two big polls out of Pennsylvania help sharpen the focus a bit, as the candidates prepare to debate for the first time. Meanwhile, the worldwide death toll for the coronavirus passed one million.

Welcome to the Countdown Journal. There are 35 days until Election Day, and then 78 days after that until the Inauguration.

About three-quarters of voters tell pollsters they plan to watch tonight’s presidential debate. I’m skeptical about that number, and remain dubious about whether the debate will change the fundamentals of a remarkably stable race.

A new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that 86 percent of voters said their minds were made up; 93 percent of Biden voters and 89 percent of Trump voters say they are locked in.

But, there’s no doubt that this will be an extraordinary moment of political theater. As over-saturated as we have been by Trump over the last four years, we haven’t seen him in a setting like he will face tonight.

There is little evidence that Trump has prepared in any systematic way, so we pretty much know what to expect: a rally-cum-briefing-cum-twitter-rant from a president who absolutely, positively wants his opponent drug-tested because nobody could do this without being hopped up on something. Expect lots of sniffing.

For more than 3-plus years, Trump has controlled his environment, creating a bubble of adulation and affirmation. He has been the executive producer of his life in the White House, his rallies, and even his press briefings, where he can simply walk out if the questions get too hard. He thinks that he can finesse even the toughest interview, and Lord knows, there have been few enough of those.

Tonight, though, he not only faces tough questions, but an actual opponent. “This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he has shown leading the country,” said Trump critic Steve Schmidt.

Then there will be the audience. Even if the poll numbers are exaggerated, tens of millions of Americans will watch this show, and many of the viewers may not have become inured to his usual spittle-flecked WH/rally meltdowns. When he inevitably lashes out, the ugliness may come as an unsettling revelation for many of them.

But this won’t be an easy debate for Biden. As Philippe Reines wrote yesterday:

Donald Trump is a very bad debater. Donald Trump is very difficult to debate.

These two seemingly contradictory statements are equally true. He’s a dangerous opponent. In 2016, it was because he had nothing to lose. Now, it’s because he has everything to lose

And Trump knows he is losing. So, no matter how well prepared Biden is, debating Trump will be like trying to conjugate Latin verbs in the midst of a hurricane of bullshit — insults, smears, lies, and shameless fabulism. Biden can’t possibly fact-check all of the disinformation or try to match Trump insult for insult.

Trump and Biden also face different challenges and different standards.

Biden will be judged more or less by the standards of a normal politician, while Trump is Trump. If the former VP stutters or misstates the GDP of Azerbaijan, he will be fact-checked, tut-tutted, and the subject of thousands of twitter LOLS.

Trump, on the other hand, could peel off his pumpkin-hued face, revealing a red lizard head, and his base would still rock Facebook with claims that he had DESTROYED Biden.

So, as Reines writes, Biden will “have to find ways to prevent Trump from hijacking the proceedings to indulge one of his preferred rants.” And, since he can’t fact-check him in real time, perhaps he could pre-empt some of the attacks:

“C’mon, Mr. President. Everyone knows that whatever you call fake is real. Whatever you call a lie is the truth. Whatever you accuse others of doing is what you’ve done. And whatever you make fun of me for saying by accident only serves to deflect from what you say on purpose.”

There is a lot of other good advice floating around. But as Jeff Greenfield notes in today’s Bulwark:

It’s Much Easier to Know Exactly What To Do in a Debate If You’re Not the One Debating. My old boss, political strategist Dave Garth, used to tell a story about heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and his trainer Al Weill. Before every fight, Weill would tell reporters: “We’re gonna jab in the first round; then we’ll work the body in the next couple of rounds; then we’ll hit him with a right…”

When a reporter asked Marciano about all that “we” talk, Rocky replied, “All I know is that when the bell rings, the last thing I see is Al Weill’s fat ass going through the ropes.”

Well, this is awkward.Trump Secretly Mocks His Christian Supporters” via the Atlantic.

But in private, many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.

Andrew Weissmann, one of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s top deputies:

“It was all a hoax.” Day Two of the NYT investigation of Trump’s taxes has a helluva lede:

From the back seat of a stretch limousine heading to meet the first contestants for his new TV show “The Apprentice,” Donald J. Trump bragged that he was a billionaire who had overcome financial hardship.

“I used my brain, I used my negotiating skills and I worked it all out,” he told viewers. “Now, my company is bigger than it ever was and stronger than it ever was.”

It was all a hoax.

Months after that inaugural episode in January 2004, Mr. Trump filed his individual tax return reporting $89.9 million in net losses from his core businesses for the prior year. The red ink spilled from everywhere, even as American television audiences saw him as a savvy business mogul with the Midas touch.

Land of confusion:

Meanwhile, don’t miss this: “Behind the White House Effort to Pressure the C.D.C. on School Openings” in today’s NYT.

Bad timing? Closer to home (for me). “State reports nearly 22% positive coronavirus tests as outbreak in northeast Wisconsin worsens.”

Donald Trump plans to hold rallies Saturday at airports in Green Bay and La Crosse — an area experiencing the second-highest rate of infection in the country, according to a New York Times analysis. The Green Bay area has the sixth-highest rate.

Trump's airport rallies around the country have been marked by little social distancing or mask-wearing.

The Fox News formula. Deep in this Daily Beast story about the virtual lobotomy of the network’s fact-checking department, comes this tidbit about the stories that the bigs at Fox are pushing these days:

They are obsessed with pitching ‘on-brand’ stories that include Blue Lives Matter, anything antifa-related, anyone who has suffered during BLM protests that can put the protestors in a negative light, anything that threatens Christianity, and anyone who is a Trump supporter who has somehow been wronged.

White knuckle polling update. Very good news for Joe Biden out of Pennsylvania, one of the states that will decide the outcome of the election.

At midnight, ABC-Wapo dropped its latest poll, showing Biden leading Trump 54 percent to Trump’s 45 percent among likely voters and 54 percent to 44 percent among its registered voters.

Overwhelming support in Philadelphia and its suburbs lift former Vice President Joe Biden to a clear lead in crucial Pennsylvania, with backing from college-educated white people and women -- notably white, moderate and suburban women -- central to his advantage in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

President Donald Trump, for his part, is suffering attrition among his 2016 supporters; 8% of them now back Biden instead. While a small slice of the electorate, it’s a potentially important factor in a state Trump won by 44,292 votes out of nearly 6.2 million cast four years ago.

This followed another Pennsylvania poll from NYT/Siena:

And then there is this from Wisconsin:

There are 35 days to go.

Share Morning Shots

Quick Hits

1. Trump Can’t Take Ohio for Granted

Daniel McGraw in today’s Bulwark:

There are other reasons the race has closed in Ohio. The state’s population has gotten older and the household income is still about 10 percent below the national average. The promises Trump made about more manufacturing jobs haven’t been kept in the state and following Governor Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid, there are now about 4.4 million Ohioans on Medicare and Medicaid—36 percent of the population

And the numbers are especially high in Ohio counties that are rural or suburban, the strongholds where Trump beat Hilary Clinton handily.

Another way to understand a change in Ohio from 2016 to 2020 is to realize not all suburbs are the same. There are the older suburbs around Cleveland (with homes built directly after WWII), and newer suburbs around Columbus. Some have more foreign-born academic researchers, some have more retired auto factory workers. Some live in 20-year-old huge houses with pools in the back, some live in little 70-year-old homes on postage-stamp sized lots.

2. The Most Important Election Evah? (Or Not)

The ever-savvy Robert Tracinski in this morning’s Bulwark wonders what was really the most important election of our lifetimes.

I think like I’m on more solid ground in naming the election that was the most important of my lifetime: 1980. It gave us the omnishambles of the Carter administration—gasoline shortages, the Iran hostage crisis, double-digit inflation—versus a strong new direction for the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan had taken up the banner of the hawkish, pro-free-market Barry Goldwater wing of the party, moving away from the Rockefeller wing of “liberal Republicans.”

As for the uncertainty of the outcome, the election was far from the foregone conclusion it might seem like in retrospect. Even with Carter floundering badly, Reagan was considered a big risk, and voters broke for him relatively late in the campaign.

Cheap Shots

1. Mollie Gonna Mollie

2. A Terrible Norm

2. Losing Ann

Deep Thoughts

1. The Tedium of Trump

Quinta Jurecic in The Atlantic:

Four years into his presidency, Trump isn’t boring in the way a dull, empty afternoon is boring. Trump is boring in the way that the seventh season of a reality-television show is boring: A lot is happening, but there’s nothing to say about it. The president is a man without depths to plumb. What you see is what you get, and what you get is the same mix of venality, solipsism, and racial hatred that has long been obvious. Trump’s abuses of the presidency are often compared to those of Richard Nixon, but Nixon had a deep, if troubled, interior life; one biographer characterized Nixon as struggling with “tragic flaws,” a description hard to imagine any credible biographer using to describe Trump. In a democracy whose vitality depends, at least in part, on what people are paying attention to and what they think about it, the frenzied monotony of Trump raises the question: What happens when politics is crucially important, but there is little original to say?