Coronavirus Delivers an October Surprise

When the coronavirus epidemic came to the U.S. in February, I thought it would hit the Washington political class hard. Its members spend all their time touching each other—handshakes, back pats. They don’t like masks; they think they look goofy and sinister. They’d spread it among each other quickly. As time passed, that appeared not to be true: American politicians didn’t seem to have a higher sickness rate than anyone else. Now, in what looks like a formal unveiling of the much-feared second wave—the one scientists spent the summer warning would begin around October—the president, the first lady and the president’s closest aide have been infected.

Every four years we expect an October surprise. Nobody expected this one. Nobody would have expected it to come in a tweet at 1 a.m.

Life comes at you fast. The election is thrown into the unknown. No one can guess the political impact. Donald Trump has been pounding the campaign trail hard the past few weeks, rally after rally. If he has a light case, he may return before the election, but if not, not. The remaining presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 15 and 22. Will they take place?

If not, what will linger in the public mind, what will remain as a vivid memory, is this week’s debate.

It took place in a difficult context for the president. He had been trailing in the national polls, consistently, for the past year, and in a way that seemed impervious to external events. Joe Biden was 6 and 7 points ahead in polling averages. The president was trying to turn it around, to close the gap.

And then that dreadful debate, in which he depressed everybody, even his own supporters, by acting like a belligerent nut. He left people feeling anguished about the future of the country. By the time it was over people were thinking, deep down: The incumbent is an incompetent who’s out of his mind, and the challenger is a befuddled man who struggles to carry a public thought to its conclusion, and who can’t tell you what he’ll do in part because he doesn’t want to and in part because he doesn’t really know.

After the debate I spent a long night and full day talking to Trump foes and supporters and all I heard was an outpouring of sadness.

Mr. Trump has come in for most of the critical scorn—fair enough!—but Mr. Biden deserves plenty also. He could string sentences together, but they weren’t very good sentences. He wasn’t always coherent: “The 20—the 200 mil—the 200,000 people that have died on his watch, how many of those have survived?” Mr. Biden insisted Roe v. Wade “is on the ballot in the court.” He attacked Mr. Trump for coronavirus lockdowns: “This is his economy he shut down”—but when asked why he is more reluctant to reopen it he didn’t really have an answer.

Chris Wallace: “Are you willing to tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the court?” Mr. Biden seemed in his answer to be repeating the private advice of his debate coach: “Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue. . . . You should go out and vote. . . . Vote and let your senators know strongly how you feel.”

Mr. Trump: “Are you going to pack the court?”

Mr. Biden: “Vote now.”

Mr. Trump: “Are you going to pack the court?”

Mr. Biden: “Make sure you, in fact, let people know, your senators.”

Mr. Trump: “He doesn’t want to answer the question.”

Mr. Biden: “I’m not going to answer the question.”

But it couldn’t be more important as a question. Every American has the right to know his plans here, and the former vice president has the responsibility to provide them.

Mr. Wallace asked what “reimagining policing” means. Mr. Biden said he’s not for defunding; police need “more assistance. They need when they show up for a 911 call to have someone with them as a psychologist or psychiatrist to keep them from having to use force and be able to talk people down.”

C’mon, man. An officer answering a midnight call with some doped up guy wielding a knife in a darkened doorway and a woman and kids sobbing inside the house—that cop would be happy to have a shrink to help, and also a priest and a rabbi and a helpful hospital team with a straitjacket. In what world is tapped-out, freaked-out, unruly America going to get that?

Mr. Wallace asked if Mr. Biden had ever called the Democratic mayor of Portland or governor of Oregon and asked them to do whatever it takes to end the summer’s riots. Mr. Biden, weakly: “I don’t hold public office. . . . I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted.”

He never asked them to “knock off a hundred days of riots?”

Mr. Biden: “They can in fact take care of it if he’d [Mr. Trump] just stay out of the way.”

The two most terrible moments, however, belonged to Mr. Trump. Condemning white supremacy is not only morally right, which is its own unarguable imperative; it is easy, a softball a competent demagogue could have hit out of the park. Americans disapprove of hate groups! They hate groups based on hating a race or religion or ethnicity. Such groups are un-American. It is scandal a president would not denounce them.

As terrible, and ominous, was at the end.

Mr. Wallace: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Mr. Trump: “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster.” He spoke of mail-ballot fraud, “We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.” “It’s a rigged election.” “This is not going to end well.” He said this twice.

Mr. Wallace: “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?”

Mr. Trump: “I am urging my people . . . if it’s a fair election, I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

He wouldn’t vow to do what any president in history would do, urge calm and discourage violence.

But Mr. Biden did. “The fact is, I will accept it. . . . And if it’s me, in fact, fine. If it’s not me, I’ll support the outcome.”

It was the most important thing said all night. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for saying it. Shame on the president for not. That’s the point where he really looked like a loser.

You know what’s about to take on heightened importance? The vice-presidential debate next Wednesday. America doesn’t really know Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee. It doesn’t really know Vice President Mike Pence, either. It’s a freakish year: The president is sick, and Mr. Biden, who turns 78 next month, would be the oldest president ever. Voters are going to want to know Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence a lot better. They’re going to look at that debate in a whole new way.

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