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On the roster: The mistake on the lake - GOP senators frustrated as Comey claims ignorance - ‘Amtrak Joe’ keeps his focus on Pennsylvania - Ernst feels SupCo pressure in Senate race - They must have watched the debate

This is a note of studied optimism. We understand that there are big problems facing our grand old republic but, as the saying goes, what’s wrong with America can be fixed by what’s right about America.

It’s not “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” It’s an informed view that relies on the knowledge that humans tend to have a hard time being proportionate in their assessments of their own circumstances.

But holy hopping hand grenades, Batman.

It is not enough to say that the conduct of President Trump and, to a lesser degree, his challenger, Joe Biden, in their first debate was dreadful, boorish and low. It was more than just a nearly unwatchable spectacle.

The citizens of the nation that has done more to elevate the human condition and the cause of liberty than any other in history were forced on Tuesday to confront some hard truths about the failure of our political system.

We have turned the presidency into a royal throne but watched two men unwilling or unable to conduct themselves with nobility. We find ourselves where the Founders warned us we could end up: A politics in which a massively powerful central government is controlled by raw emotion and demagoguery.

Unwilling to live under the strictures of a republic – of compromise, of consensus, of incrementalism, of hard limits – Americans for decades have lurched toward the easy path of executive authority. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that the presidents would be able and beneficent rulers… or at least the ones from our side.

Chris Wallace was the only person on the stage in Cleveland who seemed anything like those things.

As the father of our Constitution, James Madison, put it, without strict limits to ensure individual rights and protect minority views, “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.” 

It was fitting, then, to have Biden refuse to answer the question about strip mining the last escarpments that separate our republic from mob rule. If you make the Senate into a simply majoritarian institution like the House and turn the Supreme Court into a partisan super Senate, we would be two steps closer to ensuring the tyranny of majorities.

We’ve been in a mode for a dozen years or so in which the parties trade devastating electoral blows that occasionally result in one party ramming through unpopular initiatives. Governance only occurs under one-party rule and immediately results in the end of that party’s monopoly on power. Then we wait for the other side to get that one-seat advantage, that 50.1 percent win, that low-turnout special election victory so they can repeat the process.

On the right, we hear calls for presidential power of nearly unlimited scope. On the left, we hear calls for toppling the Senate and wrecking the Supreme Court.

Watching Trump bully, bluster and insult his way through that debate, who could imagine that a more powerful executive branch is a good idea?

Watching Biden stagger, stumble and wince his way along, who could imagine that now was the time to weaken the other branches?

Yet who will rise to the defense of Mr. Madison’s dream of a republic that values the rights of man more than the shouted demands of the mob?

We’re not going to make you relive that awful, embarrassing spectacle with much in the way of blow-by-blow analysis. But on a practical level, it’s clear that Trump did himself far more harm than good.

He came with the clear intent of getting Biden to snarl and snap – going after his son’s drug problem, Biden’s college grades, etc. – and except for a few putdowns of his own, e.g. calling Trump a “clown,” the former vice president kept his cool. Trump, not Biden, was the one who came off as angry and overmodulated.

Trump’s blow-it-all-up strategy was a dramatic departure from his effective, more controlled approach in 2016. That reflects the president’s knowledge that time is quickly running out for him to change the trajectory of a race that is slipping away.

Trump has been spinning himself into the ground throwing haymakers for weeks, and this was the worst episode yet. And Biden was more-or-less able to duck the uppercuts.

Most stupefying was Trump’s advice that right-wing militants should “stand by” for violence after the election or his claim that the results may be invalid. We can’t imagine for whom this would be persuasive to cast a vote for Trump. But we can certainly imagine how it will push undecided voters toward Biden, drive Democratic donors and supercharge Blue Team turnout. 

The Commission on Presidential Debates is preparing new means to rein in the interruptions, more than three quarters of which came from the sitting president. And while we don’t expect him to admit any error, we’ll bet you that the Trump who shows up on Oct. 15 for the town hall debate in Miami will sound very different than the one who smashed the scenery like Godzilla in a blue suit this week.

While we may step back from this particular precipice, we shouldn’t look away from the edge too soon.

The system that is our birthright and our greatest asset as a nation is in trouble. Our once-great parties are in shambles, incapable of providing the stability they long provided. Radical voices on both sides are growing increasingly intolerant of the limits on power our Constitution requires. Congress refuses to govern.

We had a system that could and did handle both able and unable presidents as well as men of characters both good and bad. In a well-functioning republic, a mean, low confrontation like the one we saw wouldn’t be that big of a warning sign.

But when you have a broken system and individual incapacity then you’ve got real trouble.

Our system is predicated on the idea that no person is fit to rule his peers. Trump and Biden made the Founders’ case on Tuesday better than the Federalist Papers ever could.

“Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power, called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities.” – Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, discussing how to preserve the union, Federalist No. 20

NatGeo: “Ever since it emerged from a German limestone quarry in 1861, the first known fossilized feather has been an icon of paleontology: at once shockingly similar to modern bird feathers, yet entombed in ancient rock. That 150-million-year-old plume was the first fossil ever tied to Archaeopteryx lithographica—a name now given to a feathered dinosaur found in nearby rocks. About the size of a raven, that ancient animal’s mix of bird and dinosaur features showed an example of evolutionary transition, providing support for Charles Darwin’s theories. Today, the feather that started it all is arguably the most famous fossil of its kind. But it’s also among the most controversial—with one 2019 study even suggesting that it didn’t belong to Archaeopteryx at all. The question isn’t whether Archaeopteryx was feathered: Many of the 13 skeletons found over the years preserve feather imprints. Instead, the question is whether this iconic feather—which provided early evidence for the deep evolutionary history of modern birds—actually belongs to Archaeopteryx.”

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

Trump: 43 percent         
51.2 percent         
Size of lead:
Biden by 8.2 points         
Change from one week ago: Biden ↑ 0.4 points, Trump ↓ 0.4 points
[Average includes: Monmouth University: Trump 45% - Biden 50%; NYT/Siena College: Trump 41% - Biden 49%; ABC News/WaPo: Trump 44% - Biden 54%; Quinnipiac University: Trump 42% - Biden 52%; NBC News/WSJ: Trump 43% - Biden 51%.]

(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: 44.2 percent
Average disapproval: 52.8 percent
Net Score: -8.6 points
Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.4 points
[Average includes: NYT/Siena College: 46% approve - 50% disapprove; ABC News/WaPo: 44% approve - 55% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 43% approve - 53% disapprove; NBC/WSJ: 45% approve - 53% disapprove; NPR/PBS News/Marist: 43% approve - 53% 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.

Fox News: “Former FBI director James Comey was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee over exactly what he knew regarding FBI actions in the early stages of the Russia investigation – but throughout the hearing claimed ignorance of virtually every act that was mentioned during questioning. A Justice Department Inspector General (DOJ IG) report previously found that the warrant application and subsequent renewals applications for surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page contained inaccuracies and omissions and relied on the Steele dossier despite evidence that it was unreliable. Comey opted not to deliver an opening statement Wednesday but welcomed questions. Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., got right to the point and asked what efforts the FBI made to verify the dossier. ‘I don't know,’ Comey said. Graham also asked what Comey knew about former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who has pleaded guilty after being accused of altering an email to say that Page was not working with the CIA despite the FBI having knowledge that Page was working with the agency.”

Fox News: “With Election Day just 34 days away and the first presidential debate over, President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have entered the final leg of the 2020 campaign. Following Tuesday night's raucous and fiery debate in Cleveland … the candidates will travel to 2020 battleground states to continue to appeal to voters. … Trump is slated to travel to Minnesota on Wednesday evening for a Make America Great Again rally in Duluth, about three hours north of Minneapolis. It's the third time the president has visited Minnesota since March, and his second in two weeks. The rally is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Although it's been a solidly blue state for most of the past five decades, Minnesota has emerged as a battleground in the 2020 election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state by just 44,593 more votes than Trump. … The former vice president and his wife, Jill Biden, are embarking on a train tour across parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania named the ‘Build Back Better Express.’ The Bidens will begin the tour in Cleveland and make a stop in Alliance, Ohio. In the afternoon, they will make stops in Pittsburgh and Greensburg, Pa.”

Trump still plans for large Wisconsin rallies despite virus warnings - WaPo: “President Trump has scheduled large campaign rallies this weekend in Wisconsin despite recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that call for increasing social distancing in the state ‘to the maximal degree possible.’ The task force has further flagged La Crosse and Green Bay, the metropolitan areas where Trump plans to gather thousands of supporters Saturday, as coronavirus ‘red zones,’ the highest level of concern for community spread of the virus, according to a report from the group released Sunday and obtained by The Washington Post. Wisconsin is listed in the document as the state with the third-highest rate of new cases in the country, with 243 new cases per 100,000 people over the previous week, about 2.6 times greater than the national average. Ahead of Trump’s scheduled rally in Green Bay, the Bellin Health System said Tuesday that its hospital in that city is at 94 percent capacity as covid-19 continues to spike in the community.”

With 34 days to go, Democratic mail voting surge worries GOP - WaPo: “Democratic voters who have requested mail ballots — and returned them — greatly outnumber Republicans so far in key battleground states, causing alarm among GOP party leaders and strategists that President Trump’s attacks on mail voting could be hurting the party’s prospects to retain the White House and the Senate this year. Of the more than 9 million voters who requested mail ballots through Monday in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maine and Iowa, the five battleground states where such data is publicly available, 52 percent were Democrats. Twenty-eight percent were Republicans, and 20 percent were unaffiliated. Additional internal Democratic and Republican Party data obtained by The Washington Post shows a similar trend in Ohio, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Even more alarming to some Republicans, Democrats are also returning their ballots at higher rates than GOP voters in two of those states where that information is available: Florida and North Carolina.”

Politico: “Republican Sen. Joni Ernst joined the GOP blockade of Merrick Garland in 2016, and two years later she reiterated that the Senate shouldn’t take up a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year. But with Senate Republicans now forging ahead with confirmation proceedings for Amy Coney Barrett, the first-term senator is right there with them. ‘In my mind, I've been consistent because we had divided government then between the Senate and a Republican majority versus the president,’ Ernst, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview here last week, arguing that Garland wouldn’t have been approved, anyway. ‘But we have consolidated power between the branches now, and I think it's appropriate. So I'll do my duty.’ Yet Ernst — locked in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country — isn’t taking much heat from her Democratic opponent over her change. In an interview, Theresa Greenfield brushed off a question about Ernst's consistency by saying voters would make that judgment, and even criticized claims from Democrats that the entire confirmation process is illegitimate, calling them ‘divisive.’”

Election for Rep. John Lewis’ seat goes to runoff - Roll Call: “A short-term stint in Congress will be even shorter after a special election Tuesday in Georgia’s 5th District ended with none of the seven candidates getting the needed 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Former Atlanta City Council Member Kwanza Hall and former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, both Democrats, will meet in a Dec. 1 runoff to decide on a successor to civil rights icon John Lewis, who died in July. Hall was leading the seven-person field with 32 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the runoff before 10 p.m. Eastern time. Franklin was in second place with 28 percent, followed by state Rep. Mable Thomas with 19 percent. The winner will serve just about one month, because no one who ran Tuesday is on the ballot in November, when voters in the Atlanta-based district choose their representative for the full two-year term that starts in January.”

Roll Call: “The Trump administration will offer Democrats ‘a very reasonable response’ to their COVID-19 aid plan in an effort to strike an 11th-hour compromise deal, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday. The White House offer will be ‘very similar’ to a $1.5 trillion proposal floated by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Mnuchin said in an interview with CNBC. But Democrats have been seeking at least $2.2 trillion in new pandemic relief. Mnuchin said he plans to discuss the proposal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday afternoon. ‘I say we’re going to give it one more serious try to get this done,’ he said. ‘I think there’s a reasonable compromise here.’ The plan by the Problem Solvers, unveiled two weeks ago, includes automatic triggers based on hospitalization rates and vaccine development that could allow for an additional $400 billion in aid — bringing the total package to about $1.9 trillion.”

Pelosi readies Dem for a vote - Bloomberg: “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats are awaiting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s counter-offer to their stimulus plan as time is running out to get a deal before the election. … At the same time, Pelosi has already asked Democrats to deliver a ‘strong vote’ for the package they unveiled Monday. In a letter to colleagues, she said the Democratic plan is a ‘proffer’ in talks aimed at breaking the deadlock with Republicans. The negotiations between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats are at a critical juncture. Either Pelosi can cut a deal with the White House or the Democratic-led House will vote on her $2.2 trillion plan without Republican support, allowing members leave town for pre-election campaigning.”

Treasury Dept. will begin forgiving PPP loans - WSJ

“The commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates.” – The Commission on Presidential Debates in a statement on Wednesday.

“Just a suggestion. Perhaps there's a better game, shuffleboard for instance, that you might have used rather than Cornhole. Perhaps that I'm enough older than you to remember when Cornhole had an entirely different, not for use in polite conversation. Thanks for the daily columns. You're definitely on my ‘must read’ list.” – Michael W. Farrell, S. Burlington, Vt.

[Ed. note: Ha! I too am old enough to remember when your “cornhole” was nothing you wanted to put out at a tailgate. I even remember Beavis, “The Great Cornholio.” But in a rare victory for the un-coarsening of language, this one has gone the other direction. The Midwestern favorite for backyard beer-friendly games has carried the day. And I say good for them.]

Share your color commentary: Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM and please make sure to include your name and hometown.

AP: “A British zoo has had to separate five foul-mouthed parrots who keepers say were encouraging each other to swear. Billy, Eric, Tyson, Jade and Elsie joined Lincolnshire Wildlife Centre’s colony of 200 gray parrots in August, and soon revealed a penchant for blue language. ‘We are quite used to parrots swearing, but we’ve never had five at the same time,’ said the zoo’s chief executive, Steve Nichols. ‘Most parrots clam up outside, but for some reason these five relish it.’ Nichols said no visitors had complained about the parrots, and most found the situation funny. ‘When a parrot tells tells you to ‘f-— off’ it amuses people very highly,’ he said Tuesday. ‘It’s brought a big smile to a really hard year.’ Nichols said the parrots have been separated to save children’s ears. They were moved to different areas of the park so they don’t ‘set each other off,’ he said.”

“I go for relief. For the fun, for the craft (beautifully elucidated in George Will's just-reissued classic, ‘Men at Work’) and for the sweet, easy cheer at Nationals Park.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) writing about being a Nats fan in the Washington Post on April 23, 2010.

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 here.