How to save presidential debates

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On the roster: How to save presidential debates - Biden stays steady with 7-point edge in latest Pa. poll - Kansas Senate race worries GOP - With Senate unbroken, Pelosi and Mnuchin trade blame - Notes of price inflation, a soupcon of karma 

Just because something is good and important doesn’t mean it will stick around. If they can cancel “The Muppet Show” and Mr. Pibb is hanging by a thread, then nobody is safe.

Thursday night’s matchup between President Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was a vast improvement over their first encounter. That was mostly thanks to a change in approach from the president who went from WWE to his more typical tone: Scoffing, caustic and self-congratulatory.

Biden did better too, marshalling facts and delivering zingers with precision from the start. He certainly faded in the second half, including a Bushian watch glance, but he did better overall.

You’d still have to give Trump the win on points, though. He was surmounting lower expectations because of his first-debate debacle and managed to force Biden into a couple of damaging slip-ups. But as we argued Thursday, the state of the race meant that Trump needed to disrupt the arc of the campaign not just fit more neatly into it.

Kudos also go to moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News who posed tough questions to both candidates and managed to navigate some dicey moments with aplomb. Thanks to the more modulated Trump, Welker was able to preside over what seemed like a strikingly normal debate.

This return to normalcy might reassure those who were worried after the first debate’s failure and Trump’s refusal of the second scheduled debate. After a very bumpy year for the Commission on Presidential Debates – the bumpiest in its more than 30-year history – it can be back to business as usual in 2024, right?

That will, of course, depend on the candidates, the conditions and other variables beyond our imagining, but a better question to ask might be whether business as usual is good enough anymore.

In presidential debates since 1976 the contests have mostly taken the shape of dueling concurrent interviews with notable journalists. The moderator selects six or eight subjects, drafts questions and then ping-pongs back and forth between the candidates, hoping to draw them in to direct confrontation.

But watching Welker, or certainly our own Chris Wallace in his lion-tamer turn earlier this month, try to plow through multiple topics, it’s hard not to think there’s a better way.

The selection of topics itself causes problems because each subject will invariably play to the strengths or weaknesses of each candidate, which leads to some arbitrariness in the name of fairness. It may also mean that candidates are spending less time talking about what voters are interested in and more time working through the issue punch list.

And don’t give us that stuff about how important it is to make candidates talk about the issues they will face as president. The president’s single most important role – foreign policy and national security – got almost no time compared to giving them opportunities to boast about legislative accomplishments that will certainly never materialize.

So rather than an arbitrary selection of topics, how about letting the candidates sort it out themselves?

As the Commission demonstrated with its effective use of the magic mute button, the greatest power the body enjoys is that of granting access to the living rooms of tens of millions of Americans in the heat of the campaign. The Commission is, above all else, a gatekeeper, but that doesn’t mean that it must function as an interlocutor.

While our current crop of political leaders may not measure up to the oratory and erudition of their counterparts in 1858, the format pioneered by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their Senate contest of that year could still work today.

High school and college speech and debate nerds know well the format. Each debater gets 13 minutes of speaking time and 3 minutes to question their opponent in rounds that run 45 minutes. Candidate 1 makes a 6-minute opening statement, Candidate 2 gets 3 minutes to ask questions. Then it’s Candidate 2’s turn to make his or her case, followed by a 3-minute question round from Candidate 1. Then you get a similar round of rebuttals and you’re done.

The Commission would provide a timekeeper who kept strict control on the microphones and who could act as judge, jury and executioner when it came to any infractions. This person would probably still need to be a widely respected journalist, since you would want someone who could explain the rules clearly and who had mastery of the broadcasting arts.

The Commission could host four of these shorter face offs rather than the three longer events that are the norm, or simply add additional rounds to make the events longer. The Commission could set a general theme, e.g. foreign policy, the economy, etc. and let it rip.

The sad truth is that politicians have gotten only too good at defeating reporters’ questions. And brief speaking times mean that candidates are able to run out the clock with vague answers and avoid accountability. There would be fewer places to hide in a format like this.

We know it’s a long shot, but maybe someone will want to try it out during midterms in 2022. At the very least, we hope folks will find a way to improve this valuable institution lest it go the way of The Muppets and Mr. Pibb.

“The mere silence of the Constitution in regard to CIVIL CAUSES, is represented as an abolition of the trial by jury, and the declamations to which it has afforded a pretext are artfully calculated to induce a persuasion that this pretended abolition is complete and universal, extending not only to every species of civil, but even to CRIMINAL CAUSES.” – Alexander Hamilton, explaining trial by jury, Federalist No. 83

Happiness guru Arthur Brooks offers tips for living in our materialistic age. The Atlantic: “One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen. … We don’t get happier as our society gets richer, because we chase the wrong things. Consumerocracy, bureaucracy, and technocracy promise us greater satisfaction, but don’t deliver. Consumer purchases promise to make us more attractive and entertained; the government promises protection from life’s vicissitudes; social media promises to keep us connected; but none of these provide the love and purpose that bring deep and enduring satisfaction to life. This is not an indictment of capitalism, government, or technology. They never satisfy—not because they are malevolent, but rather because they cannot. This poses a real dilemma, not just for society, but for each of us as individuals. But properly informed, we are far from defenseless.”

Flag on the play? - Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions.

Trump: 39.8 percent   
51 percent   
Size of lead: Biden by 11.2 points   
Change from one week ago: Biden ↓ 1.4 points, Trump ↓ 0.6 points
[Average includes: Quinnipiac University: Trump 41% - Biden 51%; NYT/Siena: Trump 41% - Biden 50%; AP/NORC: Trump 36% - Biden 51%; KFF: Trump 38% - Biden 49%; NPR/PBS News/Marist: Trump 43% - Biden 54%.]

(270 electoral votes needed to win)
Toss-up: (109 electoral votes): Wisconsin (10), Ohio (18), Florida (29), Arizona (11), Pennsylvania (20), North Carolina (15), Iowa (6)
Lean R/Likely R: (180 electoral votes)
Lean D/Likely D: (249 electoral votes)
[Full rankings here.]

Average approval: 42 percent
Average disapproval: 55.2 percent
Net Score: -13.2 points
Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.6 points
[Average includes: Quinnipiac University: 41% approve - 55% disapprove; Gallup: 43% approve - 55% disapprove; NYT/Siena: 43% approve - 51% disapprove; AP/NORC: 39% approve - 61% disapprove; KFF: 44% approve - 54% disapprove.]

We’ve brought “From the Bleachers” to video on demand thanks to Fox Nation. Each Wednesday and Friday, Producer Brianna McClelland will put Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt to the test with your questions on everything about politics, government and American history – plus whatever else is on your mind. Sign up for the Fox Nation streaming service here and send your best questions to HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM.

Bloomberg: “President Donald Trump seized on Joe Biden’s pledge Thursday to eventually replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, turning the Democratic nominee’s remarks into a warning for swing state voters that oil and gas jobs could be at risk. Biden’s comment came in response to a question from Trump during Thursday’s debate in Nashville about whether he would shut down the oil industry. The former vice president, in one of his starkest comments of the campaign on the issue, said ‘I would transition from the oil industry, yes.’ ‘The oil industry pollutes significantly,’ Biden said. ‘It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.’ That response carries risk for Biden heading into the final days of the race. For weeks, Biden has been wooing voters in Pennsylvania with assurances that his pledges to ban fracking are limited to federal land and would not amount to a wholesale destruction of the oil and gas sector. He plans to campaign there Saturday. Trump seized on Biden’s remark.”

Will ‘campaign aggressively’ in final stretch - Fox News: “When it comes to the number of in-person campaign events being held in the White House race, President Trump is lapping Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But the former vice president’s campaign pledges that Biden is ‘going to campaign aggressively’ in the final week and a half before Election Day on Nov. 3. The current campaign schedule for both Trump and Biden for the next two days doesn’t seem to back up the Biden campaign’s vow that the Democrat will be very visible. While the president makes campaign stops in the battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday, Biden’s current schedule appears more limited. On Friday afternoon, Biden will be in his home state of Delaware and giving a speech in Wilmington. His campaign says he’ll spotlight ‘his plans to beat COVID-19 and get our economy back on track.’ On Saturday, the former vice president, accompanied by his wife Jill Biden, is scheduled to make at least two stops in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Speaking to reporters … Biden campaign manager Kate Bedingfield vowed that Biden would be very visible going forward.”

Muhlenberg College: “As Election Day 2020 draws closer, the latest Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll finds former Vice President Joe Biden holding a 7-point lead (51%-44%) over President Donald Trump among likely Pennsylvania voters. As President Trump seeks to repeat his 2016 victory in Pennsylvania, he is struggling to overcome the belief among a majority (51%) of likely voters that he does not deserve reelection. While Trump trails Biden in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters, the President’s supporters are significantly more likely to say they are very enthusiastic about voting for the President (79%), compared to Pennsylvanians who plan to vote for the former Vice President (51%).”

Corona woes define the race in hard-hit Pennsylvania - WSJ: “Economic conditions in …suburban Philadelphia [Bucks County] are front-and-center this fall because it is a battleground within a battleground… Democrat Hillary Clinton beat President Trump in the county in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a percentage point, while Mr. Trump narrowly won the state. Bucks, the commonwealth’s fourth-most-populated county, and 11 other Pennsylvania counties are in the top 20% nationally for both increase in unemployment rate from a year earlier and deaths per capita linked to Covid-19, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows. The proportion of the state’s counties in both categories is almost four times greater than the next-highest presidential battleground, Michigan. …All but 16 of the state’s 67 counties recorded year-over-year unemployment rate increases that were in the top 20% nationally… More than half of the state’s counties had double-digit unemployment in August, the most recent month for which data are available. None of the 11 other top battleground states comes anywhere close to that proportion.”

Biden leads big in Michigan poll, but substantial undecided vote - WLNS: “When asked if the election was held today who would they vote for, 39% say they would vote for President Trump, 48% say they would vote for Joe Biden and 13% refused to say or voted for a third party. When discussing the general election, participants were also asked if they will participate in the election. Of the Michigan residents polled, 58% said they are very certain they will vote and 38% say they have already voted. When discussing how voters will cast their ballot in this election – 42% said they will cast their ballot in person at the polls and 57% say they will vote absentee. The poll by Epic/MRS took place between October 15th and 19th, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.”

Dems bank huge early vote lead - Politico: “Democrats have opened up a yawning gap in early voting over Republicans in six of the most crucial battleground states — but that only begins to tell the story of their advantage heading into Election Day. In a more worrisome sign for Republicans, Democrats are also turning out more low-frequency and newly registered voters than the GOP, according to internal data shared with POLITICO by Hawkfish, a new Democratic research firm, which was reviewed by Republicans and independent experts. The turnout data does not mean Donald Trump will lose to Joe Biden. Both sides are bracing for a close race and a giant wave of Republicans to vote in person on Nov. 3. Yet the turnout disparity with new and less-reliable voters has forced Republican political operatives to take notice. … At a glance, the top-line Democratic margins also look huge in Arizona (16 percentage points), Michigan (24 points), North Carolina (14 points), Pennsylvania (46 points), and Wisconsin (22), according to the analysis from Hawkfish, which is funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a Trump foe.”

Trump reverses, will vote in person - Bloomberg: “Trump’s on-again, off-again relationship with in-person voting is back on again. After months in which he’s both attacked vote-by-mail and run Facebook ads encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots just like him, the president said Thursday that he will cast his ballot in person Saturday. ‘I’ll be in Florida, we’re doing rallies and then I’m going to vote in person,’ he told reporters on Air Force One as he headed back to Washington from the Nashville debate site. Trump voted by mail in Florida’s primary this year after attacking vote-by-mail, without evidence, as rife with fraud for months. With Democrats now at an advantage in requests for mail-in ballots in the state, his campaign began running ads encouraging his supporters to vote by mail.”

Parties spar over Trump campaign videotaping voters - AP: “The Trump campaign has been videotaping people as they deposit ballots in drop boxes in Philadelphia in what it says is an attempt to catch violations, surveillance that the battleground state’s Democratic attorney general suggested could amount to illegal intimidation. The campaign acknowledged the taping in a letter from a lawyer that complained it had caught voters on video illegally depositing multiple ballots. City elections officials responded they could not confirm the activity was inappropriate under Pennsylvania law. Linda Kerns, the lawyer for the Trump campaign — which has already sued to ban the use of drop boxes — wrote to city election officials last week to request that they end the use of ‘unmanned drop boxes.’ The New York Times first reported the development Thursday.”

Douthat: How Trump gave up his greatest advantages - NYT: “Donald Trump can still win the 2020 presidential election; something that has a 10 percent or 15 percent chance of happening can certainly transpire. But even more than in 2016, if the president wins this time, we will have to attribute his victory to the workings of divine providence (don’t worry, I have that column pre-written), because what we’re watching is an incumbent doing everything in his power to run up his own margin of defeat. … As politics, meanwhile, even more than the mixed messaging on Biden and the missed opportunities on relief spending, the retreat to corona-minimizing is a case study in how the Trump of 2020 has ceded his biggest general-election advantage from 2016 — his relative distance from the ideological rigidities of the anti-government right — and locked himself into a small box with flatterers and cranks. From these follies the God of surprises might yet deliver him. But every decision of his own lately has been a choice for political defeat.”

AP: “Republicans who were desperate to have Kansas Congressman Roger Marshall as their candidate for an open Senate seat are finding the race to be anything but the sure thing they once thought it would be. GOP groups are pouring in millions of dollars to help the two-term congressman win what was supposed to be a safe Republican seat and to keep it from going to a party-switching state senator who was little known outside her suburban Kansas City-area district before the race began. Like other Democratic candidates around the country, state Sen. Barbara Bollier has been able to raise a lot of money for her campaign and has outspent Marshall 4-to-1 over the past three months, forcing Republican groups to burn through the kind of cash that few thought he would need.”

Daines clings to narrow lead in Montana - NYT: “Republicans hold a narrow lead up and down the ballot in Montana, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll Friday, as Democrats remain highly competitive in a state President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Over all, Mr. Trump leads Joe Biden by six points, 49 percent to 43 percent, echoing favorable results for Mr. Biden in Times/Siena surveys of relatively white states across Northern battlegrounds. But in the hotly contested race for U.S. Senate, the Republican senator Steve Daines narrowly leads Gov. Steve Bullock, 49 percent to 46 percent. … The survey finds that Mr. Bullock continues to be well liked by the state’s voters. He has a 52-43 favorability rating — the highest of any Montana candidate tested, including his Republican rival, Mr. Daines. In contrast, Mr. Biden has a 43-54 favorability rating.”

Susan Collins confronts a changing state - NYT: “Senator Susan Collins of Maine seemed to have a challenge on her hands. A Republican running for re-election in a difficult year for her party, Ms. Collins was opposed by a well-funded Democrat… But in that 2008 race, even as the G.O.P. presidential nominee lost Maine by 17 percentage points, Ms. Collins won re-election by over 20 points, carrying every county in the state. … Ms. Collins’s biggest problem this year, however, may not be Ms. [Sara] Gideon or the out-of-state donors eager to send her a message, but rather the shifting ground under her feet. She is confronting a state, sharply cleaved by region and class, that would have been politically unrecognizable to her predecessors; an increasingly alien party overtaken by a president who demands unflinching loyalty; and, perhaps most daunting of all, a polarized political culture that elevates tribalism and national issues over the bipartisanship and pork-barreling that she has always pursued.”

Bloomberg: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Friday put the onus on each other to re-energize flagging stimulus talks as prospects for action on virus relief legislation before the election are fading fast. Pelosi said the burden is on President Donald Trump to push forward on stimulus negotiations and get reluctant Republicans to go along with any eventual deal reached with the White House on a nearly $2 trillion aid package. ‘We could do that before the election, if the president wants to,’ Pelosi said Friday in an interview on MSNBC. Mnuchin, Pelosi’s primary negotiating partner, said there’s been significant progress but blamed the California Democrat for holding up an agreement by not compromising on her party’s priorities. ‘We’ve offered compromises,’ Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. ‘The speaker, on a number of issues, is still dug in. If she wants to compromise, there will be a deal.’”

Court decision raises stakes on California ballot measure to protect Uber, ‘gig economy’ - NYT

Sanders reportedly seeking Labor secretary post under Biden - Politico

FBI to interview Hunter Biden's ex-associate Bobulinski, Senate committee says - Fox News

“‘What we need to do is have you come up here and tell them I’m a completely soulless S.O.B.’” Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, perhaps the most vulnerable House Democrat, recounting to the Minneapolis Star Tribune what he jokingly told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about how she could help him in his race.

This weekend Mr. Sunday will sit down with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Watch “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” Check local listings for broadcast times in your area.

#mediabuzz - Host Howard Kurtz has the latest take on the week’s media coverage. Watch #mediabuzz Sundays at 11 a.m. ET.

“The Republicans have been in a hurry to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the November 3rd election. But on November 4th, Trump will still be president and Mitch McConnell will still be Senate Majority leader even if Democrats take the Presidency and the Senate. What would have been the problem of confirming Barrett later in November or up to January 5th (for example). Republicans would be labeled as hypocrites, but hypocrisy is standard operating procedure in Washington, so what’s the hurry? BTW, I’m impressed by your objectivity.  Please keep it up.” – John May, San Diego

[Ed. note: Like most things, hypocrisy is a matter of degree, Mr. May -- and so is convention breaking. It’s  one thing to shove through a Supreme Court confirmation at the buzzer, but quite another one to do so after the game. The assumption in Washington among both parties is that President Trump will not be returned for a repeat engagement. It would invite the wrath of Democrats and the disgust of plenty of conservatives if Senate Republicans tried to push through a Trump nominee AFTER the voters turned him out. I’d guess it wouldn’t even pass. If Trump does win, it’s immaterial since his re-election would reflect the verdict of voters on the confirmation. Dwight Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant all did some version of a lame-duck confirmation, but in each case, they had won their re-elections.]

“Is there an idea of truth in what is being produced – or are you doing the same as ALL the others and dumping it onto Trump?  Is the ‘Laptop’ Hunter’s?  Seems to be enough proof and verification out there for that to become fact?  Why not let it be resolved either for or against. Because, as you’ve started to come to notice – if you are tuned to helping Biden – you are tuned to hurting Trump.  Which one will it be? How about a factual accounting – from both camps – and let the chips fall where they may? I seem to see, off and on, a modicum of fact shine thru – then I also see a twinge of the finger being pointed. Where is a balance? Who decides? Is it you?  Or Twitter, Google, and Facebook?  Try, oh so hard, to give us credit for a brain?” – Donald Tygart, Tualatin, Ore.

[Ed. note: I think I see what you’re getting at, but I’m afraid you may be looking for your salamanders under the wrong rocks. We’ve certainly been keeping track of the allegations against the former vice president and his son, but this is a political, not investigatory note. Our colleagues at Fox News and reporters far and wide have been digging into the central claim here from the Trump campaign: that Joe Biden took payola for services rendered and future consideration. So far, we haven’t seen anything that goes beyond claim and counterclaim. As for the back and forth over provenance, propriety, social media censorship blah, blah, blah, well that doesn’t seem like something that’s going to move many votes. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the two sides go bonkers but most of the stuff they’re ranting and raving about doesn’t get very far beyond their political bases. There are exceptions, most notably the unearthed George W. Bush DUI in 2000. But in a year where lines are so sharply drawn and attitudes so consistent, it would take a pretty big bombshell.]

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Decanter: “Staff at Balthazar poured the two wines into identical decanters, but the one containing Mouton Rothschild 1989 was accidentally sent to the young couple’s table, said the New York restaurant’s owner, Keith McNally. Four Wall Street businessmen at another table had ordered the Bordeaux First Growth – the most expensive wine on the restaurant’s list at $2,000 – but were served the $18 Pinot, the restaurant’s cheapest, said McNally on his Instagram account. None of the diners appeared to initially spot the error, McNally said, reporting that Balthazar’s manager on the night said the host of the business dinner praised the cheaper wine’s purity. The young couple ‘jokingly pretended to be drinking an expensive wine’, he said…. Balthazar’s manager realized the error after five minutes, said McNally…  [who] rushed down to the restaurant and decided to come clean, despite both tables enjoying their evening with the wines they’d been served. He said it was ‘unthinkable’ to take the Mouton away from the couple.”

“To serve in Congress, or even as president, there is no requirement for scholarship and brilliance. For good reason. It is not needed. It can even be a hindrance, as we learned from our experience with Woodrow Wilson, the most intellectually accomplished president of the 20th century and also the worst.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) writing in the Washington Post on Oct. 7, 2005.

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up