Recent polls suggest that Trump’s debate performance last week (was it only last week?!) and his attempt to look strong after coronavirus spread through the White House have not helped him politically. Most polls have him behind Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by double digits. An article in Politico today was subtitled: “The new surveys fall into two buckets: those that are bad for the president, and those that are horrible.”
Trump’s plan for the election was to present himself as a strong leader who had overcome the pandemic—which he maintains was inflicted on us by China—and who would rebuild the economy that the Democrats had sabotaged with their insistence on shutting down the country when coronavirus hit. To that end, Trump and his people have acted as if the danger is over, refusing to wear masks or social distance, gathering in crowds, and insisting on reopening schools.
This plan has exploded as the president himself, along with his wife and many of his top advisers, have come down with the coronavirus. They appear to have spread it not only through the White House, but also to people who attended an event for Gold Star families the day after the Rose Garden event celebrating Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and then to people who attended fundraisers for Trump during the week. The circle of those infected by the White House widens every day.
So Trump is trying hard to prove that he is back from the illness better than ever, that he is “cured” of coronavirus in record time. He released a video today claiming he is fine, and has been tweeting at a breakneck pace, trying to resurrect the old stories that, in the past, provided distractions from bad news. He is desperate to move attention from the pandemic, which has now killed more than 210,000 Americans. Even Hillary Clinton’s emails reappeared last night, despite the definitive conclusion of the State Department last October that Clinton had not deliberately mishandled classified information.
Republicans, though, see the writing on the wall, and those up for reelection are distancing themselves from the president to try to hold onto their seats. Today, the New England Journal of Medicine called for voters to turn out of office “our current political leaders [who] have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent…. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” And this morning, on the Fox News Channel, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina, who ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, explained that she was voting for Biden, since Trump has “damaged” the Republican Party.
Senate Republicans now seem concerned enough about Trump’s reelection that they are laser-focused on getting Barrett onto the Supreme Court. Indeed, they are so focused that they are refusing to quarantine even though many have been exposed to coronavirus. They are determined to have all the votes they need to get her through the Senate before the election. It seems a number of senators are going so far as to refuse to be tested so they will not have to miss the vote.
Trump does have the Department of Justice on his side, although right now Attorney General William Barr is one of those quarantining after exposure to coronavirus. On Friday, an official in the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ in Washington, D.C., changed the long-standing policy of the department against interfering in elections. Since at least 1980, the DOJ has barred prosecutors from announcing any investigations or making arrests or raids before an election out of fear of affecting the outcome. Now, though, if a U.S. Attorney’s office suspects election fraud, especially cases involving United States Postal service workers or military employees, it can make an investigation public before the polls close. Because voter fraud through mail-in ballots involving the USPS and military voting have been key elements of Trump’s charge that the election will be tainted, observers are concerned that this new rule is designed to make it easier for Trump to contest the results of the election.
Tonight was the vice presidential debate, and it transpired about as anyone would have expected. With the poll numbers as they are, the burden was on Vice President Mike Pence to try to move undecided voters into Trump’s camp, while Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (CA) simply had to make sure to avoid any major gaffes. But she is a good enough debater that she had a loftier goal, too: to make people who didn’t know her well connect with her as a person. Surprisingly, the moderator, Susan Page, the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, seemed unprepared for Pence to bully as Trump had. Pence talked far past his time, interrupted, and refused to answer questions, so the debate went off the rails quickly while Page tried to stop him only by saying “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” an admonition he simply blew through.
Pence did not make up the ground he needed to if his goal was to help move voters into the Trump camp. He looked tired and weak and wooden, and one of his eyes was bloodshot. His answers were smooth, but they were Trump talking points and debunked conspiracy theories that we have all heard a thousand times. He turned away from questions of substance, quite explicitly refusing to answer them and turning back to a previous question. So, for example, he said the Trump administration had a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but when asked what it was, talked instead about the Supreme Court.
The only truly notable moment in his answers was notable indeed: he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he and Trump lose the election.
Pence needed to turn Trump’s numbers, and he did not. His repetition of debunked claims—I mean, he was really just lying—while talking over his opponent and the moderator, played terribly with women. Trump needs to make up ground there and, if anything, Pence lost it. What he did do, of course, was to play to Trump’s base, just as Trump did last week.
Harris did what she set out to do. She provided detailed, clear accounts of Biden-Harris policies—her explanation of the principles of foreign affairs was terrific: simple, clear, and a dig at Trump—and she connected with viewers who did not know her well by speaking personally about her mother, her talks with Biden, and about what people’s lives are actually like under this administration. Her masterful handling of Pence’s badgering also personalized her for the vast numbers of us who have dealt with That Guy in meetings, especially since, as a Black woman, she had to counter his gaslighting without coming across as “angry.”
Harris’s extraordinary historical significance as a Black woman on a debate stage vying to become America’s next vice president was not lost on anyone. America’s Black and Brown observers noted her significance to their own representation in government, and also noted how perfectly she was using facial expressions they had grown up with from older women to demonstrate that someone was out of line.
Women rated Harris’s performance higher than men did, but still about 60% of observers in a CNN poll gave Harris the win. Positive impressions of Harris also rose from about 56% to 63%. Pence’s favorability of 41% stayed the same. So, Harris nailed what she needed to: she solidified her ticket’s lead.
Still, the biggest winner of the debate was a large fly that landed on Pence’s head and roosted in his hair for two minutes without any reaction from the candidate. The hilarity that ensued on social media—you can just imagine the commentary—quickly overrode the few memorable words of the debate, leaving us with memorable impressions alone. Before the event was over, the fly had several Twitter accounts and the Biden campaign had snapped up the “flywillvote.com” domain name.
They redirected it to a website designed to help people register to vote.