The coronavirus may finally fulfill the most enduring cliché of modern politics now that the coming presidential election is widely considered the “most important ever.” But it took 220,000 dead Americans.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden will soon meet for a final debate on Thursday in Tennessee to discuss that pandemic and to argue over who is better suited to lead the country through that crisis and for the next four years. The moderator will have a mute button.
This is unusual, as the Commission on Presidential Debates is not in the business of silencing speech. But the chaos of the last Trump-Biden debate so closely mirrored the chaos of the last year that that the commission decided it needed a way to shut up either candidate, or at least lower their decibel levels. There is a lot to argue about, and it will get personal.
The Trump campaign complained in an open letter when the debate commission changed the topic from international affairs to domestic issues. The president and his team described the decision as unfair on the grounds it ignored major administration achievements in foreign policy during the last four years. Left unsaid was that the topic change makes it more difficult for Trump to bring up Hunter Biden and his foreign business deals. It seems likely he’ll do it anyway.
Trump tried repeatedly, with limited success, to label his opponent “Corrupt Joe.” More recently he has pointed to reporting by the New York Post to argue that the former vice president used the influence of that office to direct foreign policy and to benefit his son’s business dealings in both China and Ukraine.
“This is major corruption, and this has to be known about before the election,” Trump said during a Tuesday interview on “Fox and Friends.”
But while the president has publicly said the Department of Justice should look into the matter, the major media outlets have declined to take the allegations seriously. During an ABC News town hall last week with Biden, moderator George Stephanopoulos never mentioned it. The final debate may be Trump’s last time to force the question.
The former vice president has mainly ignored the allegations so far except to belittle journalists who bring it up. “I knew you’d ask it,” Biden fired back at a CBS reporter who asked last week. “I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”
Trump isn’t likely to let him off the hook so easily, even as some of his own advisers urge him to focus on the pre-pandemic economy rather than allegations of international graft. Biden would rather discuss the coronavirus than the latest October surprise. His campaign has spent the better part of the pandemic hammering the president over his response to it, and recently Trump offered his challenger another gift.
Trump warned an Arizona crowd that his opponent would bring back the lockdowns if elected and “wants to listen to Dr. Fauci,” the most visible member of the COVID-19 task force who has advocated for the measures. The Biden campaign responded quickly with an ad copping to the charge – yes, he would most definitely listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“Trump’s closing message in the final days of the 2020 race is to publicly mock Joe Biden for trusting science,” the Biden campaign later wrote in a statement. “Trump is mocking Biden for listening to science. Science. The best tool we have to keep Americans safe, while Trump’s reckless and negligent leadership threatens to put more lives at risk.”
Asked during a town hall in the Rose Garden on Tuesday if there were anything he would have done differently to combat the pandemic, Trump responded, “Not much.”
Like the polarized country they want to lead, the two candidates profess to have little in common, and no one seriously expects bipartisanship to break out on stage. But they share one trait. Even though the RealClearPolitics National Average has Biden leading Trump by 7.5 points, neither campaign says it believes the polls.
“We cannot become complacent because the very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo obtained by Fox News. “And every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire.”
Republicans are banking on the same dynamic.
“We’re going to win,” Trump told reporters last week. “I wouldn’t have told you that maybe two or three weeks ago.” On the same call, his campaign manager Bill Stepien added, “I don’t often agree with the Biden campaign, but I do agree with the Biden campaign when they say that this is a close race, because it absolutely is. When we look at the numbers we very, very much like the trajectory of this race.”
Republicans are in the habit of summoning the ghost of 2016 to ward off concerns about their current polls. They note that Hillary Clinton led Trump by a similar margin, 6.1 points per the RCP average, at this time in that race. Aggregate polling of top battleground states from 2016 and 2020 is also nearly identical. The Trump campaign argument? Another upset is possible.
Trump’s last chance to make that case against Biden is Thursday evening, the final debate in supposedly the most important election ever.