The last presidential debate of the 2020 US electoral contest is over and the final days of the campaign are playing out. What happens now?
By the time you read this, there will be a one week left before those remaining Americans who have not chosen to vote their electoral choices by advance, absentee or mail-in ballots will line up at their polling stations across the nation. The usual reporting about Election Day will undoubtedly begin with an early vote count from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.
In that small settlement, close to the Canadian border, the dozen or so permanent residents of the town – it really isn’t much more than a few homes, a coffee shop and a tradition nowadays – will gather over coffee and donuts at the old Balsams Grand Resort Hotel to record their presidential choices. And their choices have traditionally been hailed as the first place in the country where citizens vote, even if the results do not always match the final national results. But it has become a hallowed reportorial tradition now firmly embedded in national lore. Taciturn, hearty New Englanders helping pick the nation’s leader over coffee and donuts is the picture.
Of course, now, that picturesque moment of the first vote tally has been rather superseded by several orders of magnitude as almost 60-million Americans have already voted – even if their choices remain untabulated so far.
And so, at this rate, by the time Election Day on 3 November begins and the good folks in Dixville Notch gather just after midnight for their coffee, donuts, a chin-wag and some vote casting, the total of votes already cast by Americans, up until the official Election Day, could well be double the number already reported upon so far. Accordingly, the final direct conflict between the president and his would-be replacement, former Vice President Joe Biden, on 22 October, at Belmont College in Tennessee, had actually come too late for many voters to take one last look at the candidates.
Voter choices with those early votes have already been baked into the cake and they cannot be altered, no matter what happens. What might happen, however, is that some number of those votes could be disallowed by virtue of all manner of finicky errors or actual voter suppression efforts.
In any case, the debate itself had a kind of anticlimactic quality to it. Donald Trump had been warned by staffers not to repeat his disastrous performance at the first debate where he gave a fine impression of a hopped-up crackhead set loose at an otherwise-sedate cocktail party among old friends. And by and large, he kept himself under control, most of the time.
The bipartisan debate commission had also installed a microphone mute button under the moderator’s control designed to keep the candidates (but primarily Trump) from disrupting the opening two-minute responses to each question. Further, Kristen Welker of NBC (one of the major US broadcast networks) kept a tight moderating hand on the proceedings, letting Trump run on a bit, but also frequently calling him up short as well, and apportioning out half-minute rebuttal moments whenever she felt they were warranted. As a result, the audience could largely hear most of what the two candidates had to say, even if very little of it was truly new, or newsworthy.
Still, Donald Trump managed, in his inimitable style, to toss out half-truths, mistruths, and outrageous whoppers sufficient to overwhelm the media fact-checkers. It is possible his supporters have come to expect such tales as a kind of salacious entertainment, while those who oppose him (or loathe him) have just about given up remarking on his alternative fact universe.
In the debate, early on, after defending his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and insisting, against all information to the contrary, that the country was already turning the corner and that a vaccine would shortly be available, he also insisted yet again that the Affordable Care Act has been a disaster and that – four years into his administration – he would soon have a brand-new plan that would be better than perfect. Just close your eyes, click your heels three times and magically, there it will be.
Inevitably, Trump also went on the personal attack warpath, insisting his opponent had been the beneficiary of millions of dollars from the wife of a Russian big-city mayor and the largesse of the Chinese, by way of Biden’s son, Hunter. Investigations, trials, sentences and jail terms were demanded. (Donald Trump’s business organisation, just by the way, has had bank accounts in Chinese banks as part of that company’s efforts to cut deals in China.) The twists and turns of these Trumpian tales only really make sense if you were already engulfed whole in the Fox News/QAnon/Rush Limbaugh fantasy world. For everyone else, it was just more weird stuff delivered in ancient Hittite, and, crucially, a chance to run to the kitchen for another drink or cup of coffee, or go down the hall for some relief.
For careful listeners, too, there should have been a moment of recognition when the memories of all of those Trump family scandals swam into view, but as a campaign tactic, this was surely wasted time – time that now can never be made up in the remaining few days of this campaign. When you are as behind as the president is, tossing mud about your opponent is a waste of energy.
Biden was not in perfect form, but good enough to deliver a telling criticism about the Trump administration’s fatal mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, speaking poignantly to viewers about the missing loved ones now gone by virtue of the virus, and underscoring his intention that this campaign must focus on competence rather than theatrics.
In discussing energy plans, Donald Trump argued Biden had made a fatal error that showed his true colours as some kind of a tree-hugging, radical socialist, eager to collapse the economy with lockdowns for Covid-19 and the destruction of the country’s energy sector. Biden was pushed on his presumed plans to end fracking, impose impossible environmental restrictions on the nation, and destroy the oil and natural gas industries simultaneously.
With Trump mugging, smirking, and virtually dancing that Biden had just lost any chance of winning Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma because of his energy plans, Biden was pushed to explain his intent was to ban fracking on federally owned land, and to end subsidies on petrochemical drilling and exploitation, thereby transitioning the economy to renewables over the next decade and a half. Still, Biden could have been much clearer here.
In reality, this kind of thing should not be so shocking to advocate – or to hear. A more nuanced effort would have had Biden add that attempts to portray this as some kind of typical Biden-esque “gaffe” are ridiculous. From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, the US transitioned from whale oil to kerosene to gasoline, and from gaslight to electricity. Early in our present century, we’ve moved from coal to natural gas. Major petroleum companies, especially those in Europe, are already shifting to renewables, as are car manufacturers.
The former vice president was right when he said this transition will lead to millions of new, well-paying jobs, and could help save the planet from global warming. It is folly not to see this much-needed change as anything other than inevitable and beneficial. The movement towards renewables should really be viewed as simply the next step in energy utilisation, and the Biden campaign (along with an army of experts) should argue more cogently, even in the waning days of the campaign, that such a movement will, downstream, generate new, technologically sophisticated jobs, well outpacing the inevitable loss of jobs in oil and natural gas extraction over time.
But spoken out loud the other night, the Biden explanation was a bit of a muddle and easy to ridicule, even if the Biden national energy plan, as written, is actually pretty clear. And the Biden team wasn’t really hoping to win Oklahoma and Texas anyway – even if they have high hopes for Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico poll, 57% of the country’s voters back a concerted oil-to-renewables transition, while 28% oppose it.
At the end of the debate, the moderator had lobbed a seeming softball question (with a stinger in it, to be sure) at both candidates, asking them what they would want to tell audiences at their inauguration next January, especially to those who hadn’t supported them. Donald Trump gave a bit of a squint and said America had had the best economy under his administration, and that we’ll be back (I guess in an effort to channel Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film cliché). In contrast, Biden did his patented look into the camera to people watching and said he wanted to give hope. It will be science over fiction in dealing with a crisis like Covid-19. And there will be enormous opportunities to make things better, to grow as a nation, together. Mr Empathy and Mr Warmth, in comparison to the wrath of the gods upon the bad guys.
Almost immediately after the debate, Trump decamped for a whole string of his favourite campaign efforts – those big outdoor rallies with lots of cheek-by-jowl rally-goers (or Covid-19 candidates, depending on your perspective), flags, red hats and banners. These were events where the president’s rhetoric has grown increasingly phantasmagoric and hyperbolic about what that radical, socialist Biden will do to windows, air conditioners and the like in Florida, if he wins, for example. But he has been giving rallies in places that by now should be safely in the GOP fold, rather than being forced to play defence.
Part of this rally effort is because it strokes his ego and makes him feel like a winner, but part of it is also because the Trump campaign is in actual financial stress, now cancelling reserved spots for electronic campaigning, even as the Biden campaign seems to have more cash on hand than it might need for the final 10 days of the campaign. Biden, in stark contrast to the Trump effort, has continued to engage voters through small, highly social-distanced gatherings with mandatory masks, but constructed to generate the illusion of talks to people in small gatherings in their homes. `
Meanwhile, over the past several days, the country’s best-loved Democrat, Barack Obama, has been out campaigning hard for Biden, drawing free airtime for his speeches and the best lines being quoted extensively. In addition to all those devastating Lincoln Project commercials produced independently by “Never Trumper” Republicans, during the baseball World Series the Democrats themselves unfurled their own ad for Biden, featuring the familiar, gravelly-voiced delivery of actor Sam Elliott, spreading a homespun style in support of Biden.
Media attention appears to be shifting away from the horse race itself and back to what Donald Trump will attempt when he loses the election. Will he somehow contrive to despoil the results with innuendos, deadly serious but frivolous lawsuits, delaying tactics, unleashing groups like the Proud Boys, or just plain refusing to vacate the Oval Office at noon on 20 January? What will Democrats, the largely spineless Republican Party congressional delegation, the Supreme Court, or just ordinary citizens do then? Most likely, of course, if the polls are even close to accurate, is that Joe Biden will eventually be declared the de jure winner, once the electoral college votes are formally accepted by Congress. By then, Donald Trump will have been forced to accept reality, and so will most of his supporters, and the transition can begin, formally. And the nation can finally exhale.
At that point, really crucial questions can start being addressed. First, there is the challenge of knitting together a nation that has been harshly divided by hyper-partisan rhetoric, emanating largely from among Trump’s GOP. Second is how, finally, to build a strong, national consensus around a federal government-led effort to break the stranglehold that Covid-19 has on the nation. And third and fourth are how to restore the economy, as well as a sense of moral leadership among democratic nations.
Concurrently, there will be a need for a new president and his new administration to demonstrate that it can deal effectively with all of the foreign policy challenges that the Trump administration has only made worse in the past four years. There will be no rest for the weary. DM