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Op-Ed: Is 2020 shaping up to be 2016 redux?

In this time of high political drama, we’ve asked Republican political strategist Scott Jennings and L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian to have a weekly discussion of how things are unfolding.

ABCARIAN: So, Scott, we’re another week closer to the election, and I am experiencing some PTSD this week. We’ve had a surprise FBI announcement and polls that assure us the Democratic candidate all but has this thing in the bag, which makes it all feel a bit too much like 2016. I may be holding my breath straight through Nov. 3. In other news, I had to check to make sure hell had not frozen over when I read that the pope has come out in support of same-sex civil unions, putting him squarely to the left of our next Supreme Court justice, who served for three years on the board of a private school that would not hire gay teachers or allow the children of gay parents to attend. And here’s one thing I’ve been pondering. Given Trump’s “60 Minutes” meltdown during his interview with Lesley Stahl and his hissing-and-spitting tweets, do you think he is in some kind of steroid withdrawal?

JENNINGS: I don’t think he’s materially different than he’s ever been. One thing about Trump is, he’s always himself. And your recap of the week doesn’t mention Thursday night’s debate. For one glorious night for the Republican Party, Donald Trump expertly prosecuted an actual policy debate, framing up the election as a choice on key issues instead of a personal referendum on the president himself. And Trump won! Biden fumbled badly on energy (hello Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio!), giving the president a key opening in the closing days of this race. Trump made a compelling case to Black Americans that he has done more for them in four years than Biden has done in 47, and had Biden on his heels regarding criminal justice matters. Even on coronavirus, an issue weighing down the president, Trump made the most crisp defense of his administration’s handling of it I’ve ever heard him make. If this Trump had shown up at the first debate in September, we might be having a different conversation about the state of the race today. Oh, one more thing: If we are going to continue to have election month instead of election day in America, can we move all of these debates to August and September? It makes no sense to have these events after millions have already voted.

ABCARIAN: I think most of America was impressed by Thursday night. By the mute button. It was sort of like a cattle prod. Just the idea that it was there functioned as a brake on the president’s impulses to interrupt, talk over and verbally bully Biden, all of which he did in their first debate. So what did we hear? Trump downplayed the mess he has made of the country’s response to COVID and tried mightily to drag the entire Biden family through the mud. Unless you are an avid fan of right-wing media, you probably had no idea what he was talking about. Trump was not wrong when he accused Biden of making life harder for Black men with the 1994 crime bill, though the idea that Trump would have opposed it is risible. Only a few years earlier, after all, he called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated. Biden evinced Trump’s moral depravity when he pressed the president on the 500-plus immigrant children who have still not been reunited with their parents after being ripped from them at the border. “It’s criminal,” said Biden. Trump’s hard-hearted response? “They are so well taken care of.” Ugh.

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JENNNGS: The biggest difference between 2016 and 2020, to me, is that — his debate performance aside —Trump has lacked a clear agenda and his opponent isn’t despised. Last time, Trump’s campaign had a motivating policy core. Immigration. Trade. Draining the swamp. This time, Trump has not crystalized a clear second-term agenda. Last time, Hillary Clinton was extremely disliked; voters would not give her the benefit of the doubt on things like the Comey letter and other policy disputes with Trump. This time, voters just don’t hate Biden, so Trump’s old playbook isn’t working. I will say, and would be curious to know what you hear, that I don’t really know anyone who voted for Trump last time who isn’t planning to do so again (although I understand intellectually they exist, because I can see it in the polling). And, on top of that, I know several #neverTrumpers who didn’t vote for him last time who are voting his time because they think the American political left has lost its mind.

ABCARIAN: The left has lost its mind? Hardly. The fact that Biden is the nominee speaks to a high degree of sanity in the Democratic Party. By the way, I forced myself to watch the unedited version of Trump’s “60 Minutes” interview, which he tweeted out on Thursday in some sort of maneuver to preempt CBS, I guess. Before Trump ripped off his mike and stormed out, he delivered his usual barrage of lies, interruptions and attacks. He remains obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s emails, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and with ducking any responsibility for how Americans have suffered in the pandemic. He quoted as proof of his success the recent Gallup Poll where 56% of respondents said they were better off today than they were four years ago. I found that stat so puzzling, Scott, that I called Gallup and spoke with senior editor Jeff Jones. While correct, he told me, the number means little, election-wise. “In the great scheme of things, I don’t think it matters,” Jones said. “I think the [president’s] approval rating, satisfaction with state of nation and the economy have a lot more to do with election outcomes.” By those measures, I’m happy to report, Trump is floundering.

JENNINGS: And you don’t think Biden is? The Hunter Biden laptop thing is amazing to me. There’s arguably more evidence that Hunter used his father’s position as vice president to earn exorbitant sums than there ever was of Trump/Russia collusion, yet news outlets are simply treating it like it doesn’t exist! We know from previous reporting that Hunter Biden was paid half a million dollars by credit card company MBNA to lobby on a bankruptcy bill that his father was working on, setting up a pattern of Hunter trading on his father’s name. Last October, Biden promised that his family will no longer be allowed to work for overseas companies if he wins the White House, acknowledging that he knows what Hunter was doing in Ukraine was at a minimum optically wrong. And we know that Hunter Biden himself admitted “poor judgment” in taking the Ukraine gig! Yet in this “60 Minutes” interview, you see Leslie Stahl just shamelessly stating over and over that the laptop “can’t be verified” as though she’s a press flack for the Biden campaign instead of a journalist who works at a massive news outfit that ostensibly exists to get to the truth. The Trump kids have taken plenty of deserved incoming fire over their family business dealings vis-à-vis their father’s presidency, yet the media can’t be bothered to subject the Bidens to the same level of scrutiny? This stuff drives Republicans nuts, even the ones who don’t like Trump all that much, because they see a news media that has fully committed itself to defeating Trump.

ABCARIAN: No question, Hunter Biden exploited his family name to earn money. As I have written in the past, it was foolish and unethical. But it wasn’t illegal. Far from being ignored, this has been exhaustively covered by the media. I think most mainstream media outlets have been rightfully skeptical of that laptop and its contents, given its connection to Rudy Giuliani, who has been dealing with his own sideshow this week. There is no evidence to support the claim that Hunter facilitated a meeting between his father and a Ukrainian businessman, which correct me if I am wrong, seems to be the main accusation coming out of all this. I know this is hard for zealots like Hannity and others to accept, but Hunter Biden is not running for president. His father is.

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JENNINGS: Funny that you don’t apply the same logic to Trump — his kids aren’t running for president, either, but they are frequent punching bags. As we wrap up this week, the main thing I am wondering is how good is Trump’s field operation? I doubt there’s much persuading left to do, so now it comes down to getting out the vote. Like Obama and Bush 43 before him, Trump invested heavily in a massive ground game and voter registration effort. Now the question is, will it pay off? If it does, a whole bunch of the swing states may be closer than they appear.


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