Today had two important takeaways:
Intelligence officials warned today that Russia recently hacked into our local and state computer networks. This could compromise our voting infrastructure. Intelligence officials believe our adversaries will try to help Trump, possibly by casting doubt on the voting results. While the administration has tried to insist that Iran and China are as significant a threat, experts disagree. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe identified Iran as the originator of fake emails purporting to be the from the alt-right gang the Proud Boys warning Democrats to vote for Trump, but the information they used for the enterprise was all public. Russia, though, has hacked our private election systems, making officials worry that it could change or delete voter data, throwing people off the rolls or invalidating mail-in ballots.
Bottom line on tonight's final presidential debate: Trump needed to move the needle in his direction. He didn't. Biden needed not to lose voters. He didn't. The debate will likely not change the trajectory of the election.
If you need a break after this week's news hurricane, you can quit reading right here.
For those sticking around….
This was not a good day for the president's reelection campaign. He seemed unable to get over how angry he was at Lesley Stahl from CBS's 60 Minutes after yesterday's interview for a special program Sunday evening, and ultimately decided to post on Facebook the video the White House took during it. Trump's team had said they were recording "for archival purposes only," and posting the video meant Trump violated his agreement with the network.
Trump seemed to think showing the clip would illustrate how poorly the media treats him, but in fact it shows Stahl behaving professionally, asking solid questions and fact-checking the president, while Trump argues and denigrates her. If the clip was supposed to generate sympathy for him, it backfired.
The debate did him no favors either. Debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News was far more effective at keeping control over the debate than the previous two moderators were, especially at first, when the two men appeared to be afraid of her cutting their mics. Trump could not contain himself for long, though, and slipped pretty quickly back into talking over Welker and Biden both. Still, he was far more restrained than he was at the first debate.
More significantly, he made little effort to use his time to connect with voters. He focused simply on badgering Biden and rehearsing the talking points that have become almost set pieces in his performances. They are not entirely comprehensible to someone who is not reading or watching right-wing media, but they are quite shockingly full of lies. And while his language is familiar to his usual audience, it is unlikely to attract new voters, who will likely be confused at best and, possibly, bored after hearing the same phrases for so long.
While Biden, too, strayed from the truth on occasion, CNN fact checker Daniel Dale put it this way: "For a fact checker, you're kind of sitting there w/Biden. Occasionally you're like oh that's wrong. With Trump you're like the 'I Love Lucy' episode in the chocolate factory. You don't know which one to pick up because there's just so much." He noted, "From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate."
Trump did not make much of a case for his reelection tonight. He seemed to have no plans for what he would like to accomplish in a second term, although he did say he hoped to create a new healthcare plan (he has said repeatedly he already has one). He mocked Biden for talking about the so-called "kitchen table issues" that are important to ordinary voters, and insisted that Biden should have done everything he talks about accomplishing in the future back when he was vice president under President Barack Obama. At one point, Trump talked about what he would do "when I become president."
For his part, Biden largely ignored Trump's wild answers and tried to outline his policies, which he described with more detail than clarity, but which were interesting nonetheless because they offered something new when compared with Trump's rote performance, worn thin by familiarity. Biden had no major slips. Trump pounced on Biden's declaration that the nation must transition away from oil, instantly responding, "Will you remember that Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?" But Pennsylvania and Ohio produce just a tiny bit of crude oil—they are both primarily natural gas states—and Trump's identification of Texas and Oklahoma was a self-own. He is worried about carrying Texas and Oklahoma?
Most telling was that Trump was unprepared for Welker's final, excellent but softball question: if they were to be elected, what would they say on Inauguration Day to voters who did not support them. Trump claimed that rebuilding the economy "to make our country totally successful as it was prior to the plague coming over from China" would bring Americans together, and then pivoted to attacking Biden, warning that if he were elected, "you will have a depression the likes of which you've never seen."
Biden, though, recognized that Welker had deliberately lobbed them the opportunity to make a final pitch to voters. He promised to represent all voters, not just those who voted for him, and promised to put "science over fiction" and "hope over fear." "We're going to choose to move forward because we have enormous opportunities, enormous opportunities to make things better," he said. "We can grow this economy, we can deal with the systemic racism, and at the same time we can make sure that our economy is being run and moved and motivated by clean energy creating millions of new jobs. That's the fact."
On the ballot this year, he said, are "Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance, and I'm going to make sure you get that."
Instant polls gave the debate to Biden by the same margins showing in the polls in general. CNN had Biden at 53% and Trump at 39%; Data Progress had Biden at 52% and Trump at 41%; US Politics had Biden at 52% and Trump at 39%.