About last night: Trump, Biden debate long distance

Former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a town hall with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on Thursday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a town hall with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Thursday.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Putting President Trump and Joe Biden on separate stages in cities 1,200 miles apart turns out to be a pretty good way to hold a debate.

In Philadelphia, Biden had his chance to give long, earnest, sometimes evasive, but often informative answers about policy questions the next president may face. The political equivalent of warm oatmeal, his 90 minutes on ABC were nourishing, perhaps, traditional, for sure, and unlikely to upset anyone’s stomach.

In Miami, Trump brayed and bellowed. Deprived of the opportunity to interrupt Biden, as he had in their late-September debate, he instead interrupted Savannah Guthrie, the NBC moderator, as she deftly pressed him for answers on his exposures to the coronavirus, his debts and his insistence on spreading a menagerie of bizarre conspiracy theories.


No question which was the more entertaining. Politically effective? That’s a very different question.

Tiring of the show

Trump has long lived by the code of the entertainer: There’s no such thing as bad publicity, ratings are the true measure of success, the illusion of the show matters more than the mundane reality outside.

That approach captivated an audience in 2016, connecting him with a Republican electorate in full-scale revolt against the party establishment. Then, pitted against a deeply unpopular Democratic nominee, he barely eked out a victory and convinced some — and perhaps even himself — that he possessed a rare political genius.

But as often happens with high-intensity entertainers, Trump quickly started to wear out his audience. Last night, it was Biden who got better ratings, despite Trump’s show having potentially a larger audience across NBC’s three networks.

Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic campaign strategist, noticed the shifting mood within a year of Trump’s election as he helped guide Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, to an unlikely victory over Roy Moore in a special Senate election late in 2017 in deeply Republican Alabama.

Moore lost in part because of allegations about improper conduct toward girls and women that surfaced late in the campaign. Even before that, however, Trippi said Jones was attracting voters who just couldn’t tolerate the constant conflict of the Trump era.

A few weeks after the election, he recalled focus groups in which voters likened political debate to a constant, loud noise outside their windows. They desperately wanted some peace and quiet. Moore, like Trump, promised more strife; Jones preached unity.

Trippi, a longtime advocate for his party’s left wing, offered uncharacteristic advice about the presidential race to come: Democrats, he said, should pick as their 2020 nominee someone centrist, calming, perhaps just a little boring.

During the Democratic primaries, reporters repeatedly heard variations on that theme from voters trying to make up their minds about whom to support. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts captured the passions of Democratic activists, but many primary voters worried whether the political combat both senators advocated was truly what the country wanted.

In the end, the Democrats went with the familiar, comforting — if somewhat bland — candidate with a nearly half-century record of hewing to his party’s center.

Then, just as Biden was putting the finishing touches on his string of primary victories, the coronavirus began killing Americans by the thousands.

There’s a belief among some on the Trump side that the pandemic changed everything: The president was cruising toward reelection until the “China virus,” as he and his supporters call it, invaded the country, shut down the economy and upended his chances, they say.

The evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Long before the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans, Democrats won a sweeping set of victories in the midterm elections in 2018. They did so in the face of a determined effort by Trump to stir up fears of immigrant “caravans” and Democratic radicals. The two factors that most defined those elections — unusually high turnout and suburban rejection of Republicans — portended serious trouble for the president’s reelection.

Starting that year, hypothetical polling matchups consistently showed Biden defeating Trump. Polls taken in January of this year, before the coronavirus outbreak, showed Biden with a lead almost identical to the one he currently enjoys.

What the pandemic does appear to have accomplished is to harden voters’ attitudes toward Trump, turning restiveness into rejection. A country can afford to judge its president by TV ratings when unemployment sits in the low single digits and the only crises are self-generated on Twitter. When a true threat emerges and death begins stalking the land, voters begin to employ a more rigorous scale.

Without the pandemic, perhaps Trump could have won without changing his approach. With it, some change has seemed mandatory, but also beyond the president’s reach.

Thursday night’s town halls reinforced that verdict. The evening produced some news nuggets but no revelations. Trump is who he is; Biden, too. Voters at this point have a strong sense of the two men, and the vast majority have firmly made up their minds.

Trump campaign aide Mercedes Schlapp derisively likened Biden’s performance to an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But in a country traumatized by nearly 220,000 COVID-19 deaths, and with caseloads rising again, especially in the Midwest and Mountain states, that may be precisely what voters want.

Could Trump still turn things around? Yes. He almost surely will not win more votes than Biden does, but enough states remain close to sustain the hopes of the president’s campaign aides for another victory in the electoral college.

As of Friday morning, however, nearly 22 million Americans already had voted, with election day still more than two weeks away. A record turnout seems increasingly likely, and Biden continues to hold a commanding lead in public polls. As the latest USC Dornsife polling shows, Trump’s standing took a significant drop after the late-September debate, and he has yet to recover.

Win or lose, what Trump made clear Thursday night is that he has no plan — and perhaps no ability — to plot a different course in the final two weeks of the campaign.

“You’re the president — you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever,” Guthrie admonished him in the night’s most memorable moment.

The line captured the essence of the role Trump has chosen to play in the reality drama of his tenure.

More than three years ago, at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump declared that if he wanted to, he could be “more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.” But while that’s the part he auditioned for, he’s never truly performed it. Now, with voters appearing increasingly anxious to have that role filled, his time on center stage may be running out.

Closing with healthcare

In this closing phase of the 2020 campaign, Democrats increasingly have focused on the Affordable Care Act, as Evan Halper and Janet Hook wrote.

Defense of the law formed the centerpiece of the Democratic argument during this week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. Democratic senators strived to remind voters that the administration has asked the high court to strike down the law, including its popular protections for people with preexisting health conditions.

Republicans were in the awkward position of trying to reassure voters that there was little chance the Supreme Court would do what their party persistently has been urging it to do, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

The positive focus on Obamacare marks a remarkable shift. In 2010, shortly after the law passed, Republicans rode opposition to it to capture a majority in the House. In 2012, even as President Obama gained reelection, his party’s candidates largely shied away from defending the most consequential legislation of his tenure.

But as more and more Americans have taken advantage of the Affordable Care Act — and as Republicans have repeatedly tried to take it away — the healthcare law’s popularity has risen sharply, as the latest polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. In 2018, defense of the law formed a key part of the Democratic case in the midterms, and now the party is reprising that theme.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn the ACA, the Kaiser poll found. Democrats overwhelmingly want the law preserved and so do about two-thirds of independents.

The problem for Republican lawmakers, however, is that their party’s voters sharply dissent from the majority view: About three-quarters of people who identify as Republican say they do want to see the law overturned, the poll found.

The share of Americans with a favorable view of the ACA has risen to the highest level in Kaiser’s tracking since the law’s passage — 55% view it positively, compared with 39% negatively. The change comes mostly from a steady decline in the percentage of Americans who are undecided about the law. Back in 2013, before the law went fully into effect, more than 1 in 5 Americans were unsure what they thought. Now, that undecided share has dropped to 6%. The share of Americans with a negative view has remained roughly constant.

While Trump has repeatedly said he has a plan to protect people with preexisting conditions, he’s never produced one, and most Americans, 53%, say they don’t believe he has a plan. That includes a majority of independents and nearly all Democrats. As with the law itself, Republicans take the opposite view, with 83% saying they believe Trump has a plan.

The focus on healthcare in the closing weeks of the campaign could be important for Democrats, especially in closely fought Senate races: Nearly three-quarters of voters say protecting people with preexisting conditions will be a very important factor in their vote this fall, the poll showed.

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The latest from the campaign trail

As both sides gear up for election day and its potential aftermath, Pennsylvania is emerging as a top state for concern, Michael Finnegan reported. Cumbersome ballot procedures, the likelihood of a slow count and the chance that the state’s vote could be close all combine to make the state one of the country’s most likely trouble spots.

Democrats’ big hope is that Biden will win enough states that Pennsylvania won’t matter. Florida, for example, is a key battleground once again. In a sign of how much the potential map has expanded, the Democrats increasingly are putting resources into flipping Texas blue, Mark Z. Barabak and Kevin Baxter report.

Biden remains an underdog in Texas, but Trump’s weakness has clearly put the state into play. Even if Trump holds on there, the Democrats hope to pick up some more House seats and, perhaps, win a majority in one house of the state Legislature, giving them a voice in key decisions, including next year’s drawing of legislative boundaries.

With Biden hewing to a moderate path, activists on the left say they plan to immediately begin putting pressure on him to adopt bolder, more progressive programs, Brian Contreras reported.

“There is not going to be a honeymoon period,” said labor activist Joseph Geevarghese. “We’re going to hold Biden’s feet to the fire,” said Faiz Shakir, a top advisor to Sanders.

Democrats have remained remarkably united behind Biden throughout the campaign as they strive to defeat Trump, but as those comments show, victory could quickly divide Biden’s coalition.

One of Kamala Harris’ staff members and a flight attendant on her campaign plane tested positive for the coronavirus, the campaign announced Thursday. The campaign grounded Harris through Sunday “out of an abundance of caution,” campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon told reporters.

The latest from Washington

Barrett emerged largely unscathed from her week of grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As David Savage and Tracy Wilkinson reported, the hearings contrasted sharply with the bitter, angry tone surrounding the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh two years ago.

Barrett largely succeeded in batting away efforts by Democratic senators to draw her out on her views about controversial subjects likely to hit the court’s docket. At the same time, she said nothing to disturb the confidence that Republicans have that she’ll be a solidly conservative vote on the court, following in the path of her mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia.

The Judiciary Committee plans to vote on the nomination next Thursday, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to bring it to the Senate floor the next day to maximize the chance of getting a final vote before the election. Democrats concede they have little chance to stop Barrett’s confirmation.

The latest from California

California has a lot riding on the outcome of the election. The stakes are particular high on immigration, as Molly O'Toole wrote. Trump has issued more than 400 executive actions restricting both legal and illegal immigration during his tenure, and many of the changes have disproportionately hit California’s immigrant communities. Many will also be difficult for Biden to quickly reverse should he win election.

Meantime, as Andrew Campa reported, the administration has turned down California’s latest disaster-relief request, citing a lack of data about the impact of the state’s most recent, huge wildfires. Gov. Gavin Newsom likely will file an appeal.

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