I hear America absorbing. Quietly. Not screeching around and having fun, not stomping and shouting as you’d expect at this point in a dramatic campaign with weeks to go, not acting up and merrily pulling campaign signs from the neighbor’s lawn in the dead of night. It all feels so subdued. As if people are taking it all in, coming to terms with where this is going.
There’s been so much to take in! The past week was bizarre, berserk, almost biblical—the president’s illness, the sudden helicopter to Walter Reed hospital, the botched mess of his spokesmen withholding information about his condition and treatments, the joyride to wave at fans. His sudden, eerily lit return to the White House, the tearing off of the mask, the salute, the balcony speech, the apparent gasping for air. The sheer deranged spectacle of it, and the underlying sense it heightened, that the White House has been reduced to a stately facade with nothing going on inside—an empty place, a ghost government.
A former member of Congress summed the week up: “Trump is China. He started out denying the pandemic and became a superspreader.”
So far 34 have been reported sick in the White House as of Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, chief of the effort to appoint conservative judges, skipped the Rose Garden nomination ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett, which itself became a hot spot. Wednesday night I asked if this was due to health concerns. “He did stay away but you should know he’s stayed away from the White House for several weeks now because of their lax (he would say reckless) behavior re covid,” a McConnell strategist emailed. “He did not go near the ACB event.” Thursday Mr. McConnell told reporters he hasn’t been in the White House in two months.
This is how a lot of Republican political professionals sound to me: ready for a jailbreak and afraid to dig a tunnel. They don’t know where the floor is soft, which direction gets them outside the walls.
They believe the polls. They think the president is going down and is all too willing to pull the rest of the ballot down with him. A few will try to cut loose. And he’ll be gracious about it, in the way Tony Montana was being gracious when he said, “Say hello to my little friend.”
But this is also the week that journalists and politicos in Washington began wondering about something they never expected to be thinking about this year. They are wondering if Nov. 3 won’t be a win for Joe Biden but a blowout, a landslide in a polarized country that doesn’t produce landslides anymore.
It’s not only the past week’s events, not just the polls and their consistency, their upward tick from a lead of 6 or 7 to a lead in some polls of double digits; it’s the data about women and voters over 65.
No one will talk about it in public because they’re not idiots. Journalists don’t want to be embarrassed if they’ve got it wrong; Democrats don’t want to encourage complacency; Republicans don’t want to demoralize the troops; and the networks have to keep everyone hopped up on the horse race. But Tim Alberta wrote a smart and hardy piece in Politico in which he said with four weeks to go, “it’s time to inch out on a limb.” Among his impressions: There’s a lot of Trump fatigue, and it’s peaking at the wrong time for the president. Even Trump supporters “feel trapped inside a reality TV show and are powerless to change the channel.” “Trump might lose women voters by numbers we’ve never imagined.” Every poll has always shown his deficit with women, “but what we’re seeing now, in polling conducted by both parties, isn’t a wave. It isn’t even a tsunami. It’s something we don’t have a name for, because we’ve never seen anything like it.” “When it comes to the white, college educated women who made up a sizeable chunk of Trump’s base . . . his numbers have collapsed entirely.” We could see “the biggest gender gap in modern election history.”
No one knows what’s going to happen, and after 2016 people are rightly spooked off making predictions. But if what a growing number of people are seeing as a real possibility happens, if we are in blowout territory, I think part of the reason won’t be political in any classic sense, or ideological, or having to do with some stupid question about which candidate you want to have a beer with. If Joe Biden wins big, part of the reason, maybe a big part, will be simply that he is normal. Not “he’s such an accomplished legislator,” not “he’s the man of the future” or “charismatic” or “warm” or “has such a moving back story.” No. He is normal. And people miss normal so much.
Here I want to say something about the president’s debate performance Sept. 29, then get to this week’s vice-presidential debate.
He has been knocked, including here, for his belligerence. But it needs to be said that his belligerence was offensive not because he was aggressive, not because he was trying to knock the Biden Ltd. off its track and into a ditch. That’s a political debate. Sometimes you have to throw hard swings. You need a little Jake LaMotta in you if you enter the arena. What was offensive about the president was that he was aggressive about small things that mean nothing. Hunter Biden, Pocahontas, you didn’t beat Bernie Sanders by much. Those are garbage issues. He wasn’t aggressive about issues that actually bedevil the country. Politics is big and has meaning, is often crucial and sometimes even noble. He comported himself as if it’s only about small, personal concerns. It’s not that his conception of the purpose of politics is small, it’s that he’s a carrier of that smallness, a superspreader. That is what people mean when they say he diminishes the office.
As for the vice-presidential debate, neither candidate damaged the party’s prospects or especially advanced them. You could view the evening as smirky versus smarmy, theatrical versus sedated, or dramatic versus dignified, and at different points I did. It featured the worst sentence ever uttered at a vice presidential debate, from Sen. Kamala Harris: “I want to ask the American people, how calm were you when you were panicked about where you’re going to get your next roll of toilet paper?”
Both ducked questions. Ms. Harris wouldn’t answer on court packing. Since Mr. Biden wouldn’t at his debate either, I guess that’s where they’re going! Mike Pence didn’t answer on pre-existing conditions. It would have been good if the moderator had pointed out that their evasiveness is at odds with the purpose of the event, which is to find out where they stand and why.
But Mr. Pence at points reminded those viewers who hung in there of the old, differing visions of Democrats and Republicans, which used to be spoken of, even considered at the heart of things, before Donald Trump distorted all vision fields.
The vice president referred to the private sector and its power to help solve public problems, school choice, law enforcement and charges of racism, in a way that harkened back, if only a little, to the old days.
It felt . . . normal.
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