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On Politics: Putting a Stamp (or Not) on Vote-by-Mail – The New York Times

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Good morning and welcome to On Politics, a daily political analysis of the 2020 elections based on reporting by New York Times journalists.

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  • In-person voting during a pandemic can be hazardous. Need evidence? Look to Wisconsin, where studies have linked last month’s elections to a rise in coronavirus infections. That’s why Michigan yesterday joined other states — including some controlled by Republicans — that are sending applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters in their congressional primaries and the general election. And it’s why Nevada, which has a Republican secretary of state, has moved to an almost entirely vote-by-mail election and will send ballots to all active registered voters in its primary.

  • The shift toward mail voting has angered President Trump, who has said in the past that giving voters easy access to the ballot would threaten Republicans’ electoral chances. Yesterday he unleashed a series of tweets falsely accusing Nevada and Michigan of illegally supporting voter fraud, and he threatened to withhold election funding unless they cut back on vote-by-mail plans. He referred to a “great Voter Fraud scenario” in Nevada that would let people “cheat in elections,” and in a since-deleted post he incorrectly said that Michigan was sending “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people.” (The state is sending applications, not ballots; Trump later corrected his tweet and backed off his threat to hold back funding.)

  • As he draws a hard line against expanding vote-by-mail, Trump has also sharpened his attacks on the Postal Service, saying it has been mismanaged and pushing to constrain its funding. Like his recent tensions with the widely trusted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those attacks may not resonate with most Americans: Gallup polling has consistently shown the post office to be the country’s most popular federal agency. But the president’s arguments may find a receptive ear in Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally and longtime Republican donor who will take over as the United States’ postmaster general next month. The Postal Service’s board of governors voted this month to elevate DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman, despite his having no experience in the post office or postal work. Trump has pushed the Postal Service to charge large companies — like, say, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon — far more for deliveries, and his administration has actively prevented Congress from sending emergency funding to the struggling agency.

  • Joe Biden called out Trump yesterday for ousting a string of government watchdogs, and he said Republicans in Congress had failed to stand up to the president. “That used to be a hobbyhorse for Republican senators,” Biden said. “They were strongly, strongly, strongly supportive of these independent inspector generals.” He then asked: “Why aren’t they speaking up about this?” Biden spent decades in the Senate before becoming vice president, and he singled out his former colleague Charles Grassley, who has long made government transparency a signature issue. (A Grassley spokesman responded in a tweet saying the senator had “demanded answers.”) One of the inspectors Trump has removed is Glenn Fine, who was set to oversee the trillions in coronavirus-related stimulus funding that Congress passed in March. Biden said that if elected president, he would install a new inspector general “on Day 1” to ensure stimulus money was “spent fairly and transparently.”

  • The C.D.C. released detailed guidelines for reopening public accommodations and businesses over the weekend — but it’s almost as if nobody was supposed to notice. The Trump administration shot down the agency’s originally proposed guidelines, saying they could slow the economic recovery and impinge on religious liberty. Last week, the C.D.C. put out a pared-back set of checklists for various establishments to use as they moved toward reopening; it didn’t release one for religious institutions. Then reports arrived this week, belatedly, that the C.D.C. had released a 60-page document, longer than the original rejected guidelines, that proposes reopening in “a three-phased approach” aimed at “reducing community mitigation measures while protecting vulnerable populations.” The guidelines similarly steer clear of addressing religious institutions, and they do not mention a mechanism for enforcement. “The phased approach,” they state, “can be implemented statewide or community-by-community at governors’ discretion.”


Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump at a coronavirus meeting with Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas at the White House on Wednesday.


Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, has been in hot water since last week, when reports emerged that he had asked the president to fire a government watchdog who was investigating him for possible misuse of government funds.

Yesterday Pompeo stood before reporters to defend himself, saying it was “patently false” that his request had been intended to quell the investigation — which was in its final stages when Steve Linick, the State Department’s lead inspector general, was dismissed last week.

Linick has since been locked out of his office, despite regulations stipulating a 30-day grace period for terminated inspectors general, meant to allow Congress to raise objections. Democrats in both houses of Congress have begun an investigation.

Pompeo said yesterday that he wished he had pushed for Linick’s firing even sooner, but he did not offer any explanation for why he had wanted him gone.

Linick was reportedly investigating whether Pompeo had used government resources to pay for personal expenses, as well as the Trump administration’s decision to defy Congress in selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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An NBC News investigation released this week found that Pompeo had held about two dozen private dinner parties on the federal government’s dime, convening chief executives, political operatives, Supreme Court justices and diplomats. State Department officials have reportedly raised concerns internally about whether the events, referred to as “Madison Dinners,” had more to do with Pompeo’s political ambitions than with department business.

The department’s Foreign Affairs Manual prohibits the “use, or allowing use, of U.S. government funds, property or other resources for unofficial proposes or for private benefit.”


NEW YORK TIMES EVENTS

Join us today at 11 a.m. as we discuss how, from retailers to oil drillers to gyms, the economic toll from the Covid-19 crisis is forcing companies across sectors into restructuring mode or outright bankruptcy. And industries bound for consolidation will test the limits of antitrust regulations. What’s the outlook for distressed companies and their workers? How will the corporate landscape be remade? We’ll field these questions.

Special guests are Sapna Maheshwari, a business reporter covering retail; and Michael de la Merced, a DealBook reporter covering Wall Street and finance. The hosts are Andrew Ross Sorkin, the DealBook founder; and Jason Karaian, the DealBook editor.

On Politics is also available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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The Only "Black Issue" In American Politics Is Opposition to Racial Inequality

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We’re about a month away from the November Elections.

One of the voting blocs that could decide the presidential race this year is the African American vote. Both candidates have talked quite a bit about what a vote for them would mean for Black Americans. But both of them have mischaracterized African American political views and loyalties in recent months.

The existence of the Black electoral monolith is evidence of a critical defect not in Black America, but in the American practice of democracy.” — Theodore Johnson, Brennan Center for Justice

That’s nothing new, writes Theodore Johnson in the New York Times. He joins Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today and says that Americans have viewed Black voters as a monolith without really taking the time to understand the diversity of political thoughts and views that exists among Black voters.

Listen: Theodore Johnson on the African American vote that could decide the 2020 election.


Excerpt

Theodore Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Johnson writes, “An enduring unity at the ballot box is not confirmation that Black voters hold the same views on every contested issue, but rather that they hold the same view on the one most consequential issue: racial equality. The existence of the Black electoral monolith is evidence of a critical defect not in Black America, but in the American practice of democracy. That defect is the space our two-party system makes for racial intolerance and the appetite our electoral politics has for the exploitation of racial polarization — to which the electoral solidarity of Black voters is an immune response.”

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Young evangelicals are defying their elders' politics – CNN

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For this, we largely have young people to thank. Compounding natural disasters, staggering property damage and heart wrenching loss of life have flown too comfortably under the radar for years. Election cycle after election cycle passed by with barely a climate mention. Then the kids organized. Only now — after millions of young people have been striking, sitting in and turning out to vote more than in the past — is climate change a major election issue.
Among this growing throng of youth climate activists are some you might not expect: young evangelical Christians.
The organization I work with, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, educates and mobilizes young evangelical Christians across the country to take action to address the climate crisis. Over the last several years, I have had hundreds of conversations with young Christians about how our faith should inform our pursuit of climate justice. A common narrative runs through almost every story I hear.
It goes something like this. A young Christian is raised in a close family, is regularly involved in various church activities and often even attends a Christian K-12 school. She is taught values like compassion, love of neighbor and a high view of scripture. Yet, she is handed few tools for how these values should be brought to bear in the public square. Her political formation is uneven, mostly implicit and almost wholly yoked to Republican politics.
Because no political party can completely capture the fullness of the values she was taught, her community’s embrace of partisan politics creates in her dissonance and disillusionment. The tension is most pronounced when it comes to issues that seem so clearly close to the heart of God — like environmental protection and the humane treatment of refugees and immigrants — yet seem so far from the political priorities of her community.
Sometimes there is a breaking point. For many White evangelicals, it was the 2016 election when, according to Pew, eight in 10 of our parents, grandparents, classmates and neighbors voted for President Donald Trump.
Case in point: in 2017, I brought a group of 20 or so Christian college students to meet with staff in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. When asked how many of them were Republican, student after student shared how they had grown up conservative and still held many conservative values but could not claim the Party because it had left them behind on climate change.
For young Christians to say this inside the office of one of the most powerful Republicans in the country is significant. It is a direct challenge to the majority of leaders within institutional evangelicalism — including many of our own pastors and denominational leaders — who remain fully aligned with the Republican Party.
The challenge of bringing our values to bear in the public square is nothing new, and it is not unique to Christians. We all possess nuanced values that do not fit neatly into the binary two-party system of modern American democracy. Yet for young evangelicals, this task is especially hard. It includes the potential for alienation from friends, family and worshiping communities. Psychology tells us what we all intuitively know: isolation from those we love is painful, and we avoid it if we can.
Still, many young people — including some young evangelicals — choose separation anyway because it is ultimately healthier and more sustainable. Many other young evangelicals are forging a new way forward by leaning into the evangelical tradition itself.
Like most of society, the US church is badly polarized. Political differences are driving a deeper and deeper wedge between the faithful in all major Christian traditions — whether Catholic, mainline Protestant, or evangelical. Yet, the church is not merely one more social club filled with like-minded individuals. At its best, it is a community whose roots run deeper than politics. It is grounded in story — both the big story of God’s saving work in the world and all the smaller stories of how God’s transforming power is showing up in the lives of God’s people. Telling these stories to one another and to the wider world is what many evangelical Christians call testimony.
Young evangelicals across the US are harnessing the tradition of testimony in their communities to tell the story of how God is empowering them to address climate change as an act of love toward God’s world and toward their neighbors. They are grabbing microphones in front of their churches, leading Bible studies, navigating fraught holiday conversations and going out for coffee with their grandfather and his skeptical friends. And it is changing hearts and minds.
This “in-house” work is matched by young evangelicals’ burgeoning climate activism in wider society. Young Christians are writing op-eds, marching in the streets, and meeting with their elected officials. Students are starting clubs on their Christian college campuses to educate and organize their peers, even transitioning to digital organizing and video group meetings in the era of Covid-induced distance-learning.
And this year, they are getting registered and making plans to vote. Republicans have been able to comfortably rely on evangelical votes for decades, largely by claiming the moral high ground on abortion. Abortion still factors significantly in the electoral calculations of many young evangelicals. Yet more and more, it is being incorporated into a more holistic ethic of life that recognizes climate change and the inhumane treatment of refugees — among others — as threats to the sacredness of life too.
Candidates and elected officials may want to take notice. Though our parents and grandparents have dictated evangelical political prerogatives in the past, Millennials and Gen Z are ascendant. Almost 40% of eligible voters in 2020 will belong to these 40-and-under generations, according to Pew. Also, according to Pew, among the quarter or so of all 2020 voters who will be evangelical, one-sixth of them could be younger than 30. In elections as close as November’s is shaping up to be, those margins can turn into landslides.
And even though younger voters have not historically turned out in the same numbers as our elders, that may be changing too. According to the Census Bureau, turnout among 18-29-year-olds jumped 79% between 2014 and 2018 and what my colleagues and I are seeing on the ground in our work points to a cohort that is unusually motivated to have their voices heard at the polls this year. This crop of young voters — shaped by childhoods overshadowed by endless war, historic recessions and the existential threat of ecological collapse — may be poised to become the exception that proves this rule.
If so, count on young evangelicals to play our part, both in 2020 and beyond. We’ve grown weary of the current expression of evangelical politics, stoked by Trump’s Republican Party, that seeks to convince us that faithful civic engagement is a black and white, “us vs. them” proposition where danger to our way of life lurks around every corner and that our overriding political concern should be our own cultural power and comfort rather than advancing the good of our neighbors.
Many of our peers have simply left the evangelical tradition behind, fed up with how selfish some of the followers of our famously selfless Savior have become. Those of us who remain are fashioning a new way forward. One steeped in evangelical values, marked by unapologetic testimony, and shaped by a holistic ethic of life that understands climate chaos, the abuse of immigrants, the demonization of our LGBTQ neighbors and the termination of unborn life as equal assaults on the image of God.
And we’re voting like it.

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Presidential debate live: watch Trump and Biden with our business and politics experts – Financial Times

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Edward Luce, US National Editor

Agree with Rana. Trump will almost certainly make a big deal out of Barrett by alleging that Biden has attacked her faith, which he hasn’t. Indeed very few elected Democrats, as opposed to Twitter liberals, have questioned her beliefs. This will be the moment where Biden will be tempted to contrast his own faith with Trump’s alleged Christianity. See this

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Getting back to our conversation about Coney Barrett, I’m slightly surprised that neither candidate has made a big deal about this on the campaign trail leading up to tonight.

That makes me think neither know exactly how this plays. Obviously it rallies the Trump base, but her strong anti-abortion positions could really peel off moderate Republican women in suburban areas of important swing states like in Montgomery County, outside of Philly, in Pennsylvania.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Ed raises the issue of Biden’s Catholicism. Isn’t it odd that Biden would only be the second Catholic US president if he wins? Kennedy was the first (and so far the only). Working-class Catholics remain a key swing vote in the big industrial states of the Midwest. Many of the “Reagan Democrats” continue to support Trump and the Republicans on cultural issues like abortion. But there’s a strong social justice strain in Catholicism that has kept them up for grabs for Democrats in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

As my colleague James Politi mentioned in the introduction of his piece on Biden’s economic plans today, the Democratic candidate has said he, “doesn’t want to punish anybody, but instead of just rewarding wealth in this country, it’s about time we start to reward work.”

That’s a subtle but savvy phrasing of the problem, which avoids the typical progressive problem of supporting “workers” over “business,” but rather alludes to the fact that the free market system itself isn’t working properly, because the incentives are wrong.

We have a tax code that encourages debt – which is why the President has been able to live in luxury while paying only $750 in tax – rather than incentivising Main Street investment. We have an upside down market in which bad news (like the Great Depression style 2Q GDP figures) create “good” stock price news because they ensure lower interest rates which grows the corporate debt bubble and share prices, masking real world problems.

If the President trots out public debt as an issue (I doubt he’ll push forward much policy substance but you never know), Biden should counter with the record amount of private debt out there, of which the President himself is the leading indicator. He’s the biggest zombie of all.

Pretty much every economic study has found that Biden would create more job growth than Trump, and Moody’s has said that the economic outlook would be strongest if Democrats sweep Washington. But rather than focus on numbers, I think Biden is right to keep hammering the message of rewarding “work, not wealth.” As the Trump tax news has proven, outside of the White House, the President has neither.

Biden ran as a moderate during the Democratic primary, but he has since laid out a much more progressive economic platform that absorbs much of the spirit and some of the ideas put forward by rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who challenged him for the nomination. Here’s a deep dive from James Politi, our World Trade Editor, on the people and policies shaping Bidenomics.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Until now Biden has been largely reticent about Amy Coney Barrett. Since the Supreme Court is the second of Wallace’s topics, he will almost certainly have to talk about her tonight. You should watch out for two issues. The first is Biden’s Catholicism. Many Democrats have been openly hostile to Barrett’s faith – and especially her membership of the cult-sounding People of Praise.

Biden will certainly not want to question Barrett’s faith. But Trump has already questioned Biden’s religious credentials and even called him “anti-God’. It will be intriguing to see whether Biden responds to that. Viewers should not overlook the irony of the fact that the decidedly un-pious Trump has the backing organised Christian groups while the church-going Biden is depicted as leading the godless hordes. Biden will be sorely tempted to correct it.

The second is Biden’s record as a former Senate judiciary chair. Judicial hearings is a field in which Biden has as much experience as anybody in US politics. When he dropped out of his first presidential bid in 1987, he claimed it was to oversee the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork (in reality his campaign had imploded). Bork’s nomination was defeated for many reasons, not least his publicly-stated ambition to undo the civil rights rulings of the Warren court.

The fall of Bork at Biden’s hands was a watershed moment in US politics. Some would even date the start of the judicial right’s counter-revolution to then. Will Biden be able to hold his tongue? I have no doubt he will be advised to stick to the script that the Barrett hearings should only take place after the American people have spoken. But Biden has so much more he could say.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

You’re right, Ed, that Biden should focus on healthcare. It’s looking likely that the Supreme Court will strike down the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), given that conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett – Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee — may well be confirmed by the Senate. Biden isn’t particularly progressive on healthcare (he’s not for Medicare for All, for example). But simply supporting the Affordable Care Act, which he does, opens him up to the usual Trumpian attacks about being a “socialist.”

I’ll save my thoughts on ACB and the Republican Senate for later, but a good way for Biden to shift the terms of the healthcare debate – aside from reminding everyone that if the ACA is invalidated the number of uninsured people in America would rise by about 20m in the midst of a pandemic – is to talk about how terrible the current system is not just for individuals but for business.

Employer-funded healthcare in the US is an accidental system. It came into being during the second world war, when wage freezes and 1.9 per cent unemployment forced the government to allow companies to offer fringe benefits like healthcare in an attempt to attract workers. In 1943, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that employer-based healthcare should be tax free — and we were off to the races. The percentage of the population in the US covered by employer-led plans rose from 9 per cent in the 1940s, to around two-thirds today. Yet tax advantages do not offset the fact that healthcare benefits are now the second or third-highest compensation costs for American employers.

That hurts workers — basic economics tells us that as healthcare prices go up, wages will go down — but it also hurts American companies compared to overseas competitors that don’t have to be in the healthcare business, and the US economy as a whole.

“Socialised” medicine may still be an ideological leap too far for Americans. But perhaps if Biden can start talking about it as a way to take the pressure off businesses struggling to survive in a pandemic, it might become a less divisive issue.

Scenes from the trail

— Ready to roll —
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport this afternoon ahead of the first presidential debate.

— Your friendly neighbourhood Biden-Man —
Democratic presidential nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden gives a thumbs-up to a neighbour (right) from the private house he is staying at while in Cleveland in the lead-up to the first presidential debate.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Most people think this election is now Biden’s to lose, which means these debates are the last thing he wants. Frontrunners have an incentive to avoid any kind of encounter that would help the underdog, especially one-to-one debates.
As I wrote last week, Biden’s goal must be to ensure he does not become the story. That means he has to speak clearly and concisely – not a high bar. Right now the election is a referendum on Trump. Biden will want to keep it that way.

Biden’s focus should therefore be on coronavirus and healthcare, which are pretty much the same thing right now. The more Biden can keep the discussion on Trump’s pandemic record the better for him. He should also talk about how Americans can vote in a pandemic whether it be by mail or in person.

If there is one issue that I expect to get the headlines it is Trump’s refusal to agree in advance to a peaceful transfer of power. Among the six topics that the moderator, Chris Wallace has listed, are “integrity and elections”. If Trump once again chooses to keep us guessing, nothing else will matter. It goes without saying that Biden should unflinchingly pledge to abide by the result of “a free and fair election”.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Ed notes that the Trump campaign is telegraphing the fact the president intends to go after Biden’s son, Hunter, for his work on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice-president. But do they really think this attack line is going to work? It’s not like it’s new; Trump attacked Biden repeatedly over Hunter’s business ties months ago…and then dropped it when it became clear it wasn’t helping him in the polls.

Also, raising questionable family business dealings is not necessarily something that plays in Trump’s favour right now, particularly after the New York Times exposé Ed refers to. That investigation shows that Trump’s daughter Ivanka was paid “consulting fees” by the Trump Organization that the NYT says appear to be something of a tax dodge.

Tonight’s debate is taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, a state that Trump won by 8 points in 2020. Pundits subsequently concluded that the state had turned solidly Republican, but polls show Biden with a small lead this time round. Here’s a story from Demetri Sevastopulo, our Washington Bureau Chief, on how Trump is trying to retain his edge with white working class voters in Ohio and other battleground states in the rust-belt and Midwest.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

I spent much of last week on a 13-hour road trip from NYC to Chicago in order to drop my daughter at college and much of that time was spent driving through Pennsylvania, which has arguably become the single most important swing state in the nation.

Pennsylvania is, as Southern liberal politico James Carville once put it, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. In between those two places, there are hundreds of miles of farmland and plenty of people who voted for Trump last time around. He’s done nothing for them, of course. The broadband is still spotty, the highway potholes rife and the debt mounting.

Unfortunately, state politics during the pandemic reflect the national divide. As one source in state government put it to me, “when anyone tries to slow down and plan out a thoughtful re-opening, they get lambasted as being too liberal. When anyone makes the point that we need to avoid total economic collapse, they are labeled crazy conservatives. It’s just all finger pointing. And if we don’t get federal help after November, it will be all-out war.”

Which brings me to the key point that Biden must hammer home in tonight’s debate: it’s all about the president’s mishandling of the pandemic, which has claimed 200,000 American lives. In some ways, little else right now matters. But in other ways the Trump Covid debacle is just illustrative of the fact that he’s not a leader, he’s a paranoid narcissist. He isn’t capable of respecting or caring for others — that’s the DSM definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

Biden, on the other hand, is nothing if not empathetic and respectful. My one worry about the debates is that Biden’s inherent dignity will make it difficult for him to handle Trump, who is like the guy in oncoming traffic who wins a war over who will swerve by pulling off his steering wheel. I think the way forward is to treat Trump like the toddler he is, speak slowly and make him sputter (Elizabeth Warren’s quip, “Donald, it’s time to put on your big boy pants” comes to mind), and double down on empathy when addressing the audience. My fingers are crossed that the people in Pennsylvania and the other swing states won’t fall for a con man twice.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

The thing to remember about tonight’s debate is that Donald Trump’s back is to the wall. I don’t mean the polls, which are nevertheless looking ominous. I mean his taxes. The New York Times tax scoop may not sway many swing voters — to the extent that endangered species of American is even paying attention. But it does increase the likelihood that Cyrus Vance, the New York District Attorney, will bring a criminal prosecution for tax fraud.

As we learned from last year’s Special Counsel investigation, being president gives Mr Trump personal immunity and shields him from his lenders, to whom he owes roughly $300m in the next four years, according to the New York Times report. So his incentive to stay in office is pretty much existential. I don’t believe this has been true of any other president in US history. All of which means he’s likely to play even dirtier than normal in tonight’s debate, which is saying something.

To be sure, the NYT tax story has given Joe Biden some easy attack lines (how many essential workers are paying more in federal taxes than the president’s $750 tax bill in his first year as president?). But it will also boost Trump’s instinct to go for the jugular, the shins, and other tender spots within reach. Expect Trump to call on Hunter Biden to release his returns. Expect him also to echo Fox News’ reference to “the Biden crime family”.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

This is how I’ve been preparing for tonight’s event: re-watching old Saturday Night Live parodies of previous presidential debates. Here are my top five:

— Chevy Chase as Jerry Ford —

He did nothing to try to look like the president, but Chase’s depiction of Ford did as much to solidify the incumbent’s image as a slightly dim jock (Ford played football at the University of Michigan) than Ford’s own miscues (see above). My favourite is when Chase-as-Ford is asked a complicated question about unemployment from Jane Curtain, to which he responds: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

— Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz reprise Bush-Dukakis —

Much has been written about Carvey’s depiction of George HW Bush, an impression that Bush himself eventually warmed to. What I had forgotten was how funny Lovitz was as Dukakis. The whole debate (featuring Tom Hanks as the late ABC News presenter Peter Jennings) is hysterical, but my favourite moment is when Lovitz-as-Dukakis is asked to respond to a fumbling Carvey-as-Bush word salad: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

— Darrell Hammond as Al Gore —

Much like Carvey’s take on Bush, this parody is mostly remembered as one of Will Ferrell’s first outings as Bush the Younger (remember “strategery”? This is where it was coined). But Hammond’s eye-rolling, deep-sighing Gore is brutal, particularly for his repeated and overly-earnest invocation of “lockbox”, one of Gore’s central deficit-reduction policies. It helped doom Gore.

— Dana Carvey as Ross Perot —

The amazing thing here is that Carvey plays both Perot and Bush père thanks to a bit of pre-taping, with the late Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton. For me, the most memorable moment is at the very end when Carvey-as-Bush and Hartman-as-Clinton look over at Perot, and you see what’s on their minds: one of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.

— Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump —

The only reason I don’t rank this one higher is that Baldwin was funnier as Trump in other, later bits. Still, this debate sketch with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton is Baldwin’s debut. There’s no single moment that stands out in Baldwin’s bravura performance here, though given recent revelations about Trump’s taxes, the exchange where McKinnon-as-Clinton accuses Baldwin-as-Trump of “never paying taxes in his life” reverberates four years later. Baldwin’s response? McKinnon is getting “warmer”.

We’ll have to save Tina Fey’s depiction of Sarah Palin for next week’s vice-presidential debate. Enjoy!

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Welcome to the FT’s first ever US presidential debate “watch-along” with our two Swamp Notes columnists, Ed Luce in Washington and Rana Foroohar in New York, and me, your virtual innkeeper.

We’ll be providing real-time commentary and analysis of the Trump-Biden fireworks in Cleveland, Ohio, from the safety of our socially-distant laptops in the hopes of giving FT readers a bit of added insight gleaned from years of reporting and writing about US politics.

There are, of course, limits to real-time commentary. The history of presidential debates are rife with examples of showdowns where the meaning was not clear until days or weeks later. Famously, Richard Nixon was deemed the “winner” of the first televised debate in 1960, only to learn much later that John Kennedy’s image of youth and vigour was more important with voters who watched the exchange.

Similarly, in 1976 — the first time general election debates were reintroduced after those Nixon-Kennedy duels — incumbent Gerald Ford ended up in hot water after claiming there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”. But that gaffe was largely overlooked on the night. As Rick Perlstein notes in his new history of the era, early polls had Ford beating Jimmy Carter by a wide margin, and Dick Cheney, who was managing Ford’s re-election campaign, had scored the president the big winner. But the flub eventually helped solidify the image of Ford not quite being up to the job.

Which is all to say that we may miss something. We may over-interpret. We may declare a turning point where there is none. But that is all part of creating what the late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham called “the first rough draft of history”. In this deadly serious political season, we are also hoping to inject a bit of fun back into election-watching. For good or for ill, modern politics includes a bit of show business — Hollywood for ugly people, in the famous expression — and perhaps no set piece on the US electoral calendar encapsulates that more than presidential debates.

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