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The Morning Dispatch: One Bad Debate
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The Morning Dispatch: One Bad Debate

Plus, explaining the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Happy Wednesday! Well, that was … something. Thanks to the 4,000 of you who joined our bonus, post-debate Dispatch Live last night. We’ll get through these next 34 days together!

If you missed the fun, never fear: You can watch a replay of the event here.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 42,795 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.3 percent of the 812,773 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 943 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 205,974.

  • Researchers at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems produced papers outlining the theoretical basis for a compact nuclear fusion reactor, named Sparc, that could, if successful, begin producing clean energy within the next decade. Construction of a reactor is expected to take three to four years, and begin next spring.

  • Joe Biden and Kamala Harris released their 2019 tax returns on Tuesday, just hours before last night’s debate. On the $944,737 Joe and Jill Biden made last year, the couple paid $299,346 in federal income taxes (a 31 percent tax rate). Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, reported joint income of $3,018,127 in 2019 and paid $1,185,628 in federal income taxes (a 39 percent tax rate).

  • Regeneron Pharmaceuticals released promising new data on Tuesday showing the biotechnology company’s antibody cocktail REGN-COV2—a monoclonal antibody treatment—reduced the viral load and improved recovery time in non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

  • Two NFL teams—the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings—announced on Tuesday they “will suspend in-person club activities” this week after three Titans players and five Titans staffers tested positive for COVID-19, the first known outbreak of the young season. The announcement came two days after the Titans played host against the Minnesota Vikings, who have yet to announce any positive cases. The league is still planning for the Titans to play their next game on Sunday.

The First Debate: Can’t-Unsee TV

Joe Biden and Donald Trump met for the first time on the debate stage last night, and man, was it hard to watch. The 90-minute event felt like it lasted several years, with both candidates yelling over one another incomprehensibly for large swaths of it as Fox News moderator Chris Wallace tried to keep control. Despite his gamely efforts, the whole thing was a sorry spectacle, another low point in an exhausting year during which low points have become the norm.

“Watching that debate,” one Democratic strategist told us after, “was like watching the Angel of Death unfurl its glorious infinitely black wings before me, my eyes being taken ever deeper into the absolute void where no color can exist, and seeing in that moment nothing but death and the end of all things shouted at me through the guttural Queens accent of a madman.”

Okay, a little dramatic. One unaligned Wisconsin voter likely spoke for much of the country when he put it this way halfway through the affair: “Can’t even watch this. We can do so much better than these two. Just an embarrassment.”

President Trump seemingly came into the debate with two tasks: to rattle Biden and make him look like the doddering old man the Trump campaign has been trying to cast him as for months; and to do some damage to Biden’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too policy agenda, a strongly progressive set of policies cast in gauzy, moderate terms.

On the former, it looked at first like he might see some results. Particularly in the early going, Biden wasn’t as sharp with his delivery as Trump, who has always had a preternatural ability to talk for minutes on end without missing a beat. And the president’s constant interruptions made sure he was the one in control of the ball. He was frequently able to heckle Biden away from a point he was trying to make, which got on the former vice president’s nerves enough that at one point, Biden snapped, “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”

But Trump never managed to maneuver Biden into the sort of actual meltdown moment he was looking for. Meanwhile, his efforts to make that happen backfired in other ways. His point-blank refusal to stick with the debate format—constantly badgering Biden during his time, constantly speaking over Wallace—made him the clear culprit for the evening’s chaos. He paid the price in post-debate polls and focus groups.

Trump had a little more success on the second front, landing his best punches on the issue of unrest in U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd earlier this year. As Biden strained to present himself as the president who could bring all groups, from activists to police, together, Trump seized the moment: “He has no law enforcement support.” Biden protested that was not true. “Oh, really? Name one group that supports you. Go ahead. We have time.” Although Trump’s attack wasn’t exactly right, Biden was unable to answer before Wallace changed the subject.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump managed to create explosive negative headlines for himself without much prompting from anyone. Most notably, when asked whether he would condemn the white supremacists and other far-right groups who have supported him over the course of his presidency, Trump suggested he’d be glad to, then proceeded to do anything but.

“Proud Boys,” he said, referring to the violent, far-right, male-dominated hate group founded by Gavin McInnes in 2016, “stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”

He also continued to denigrate the election results in advance: “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

For his part, Biden managed to sidestep the kind of race-changing gaffe that a candidate who’s up comfortably in the polls wants avoid. But it wasn’t an inspired performance. He landed the hits he wanted on Trump’s bluster-and-branding style of governing: “He has no plan,” he repeatedly said of Trump’s ongoing efforts to replace Obamacare with a health care system TBA. And he successfully painted a picture of Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde COVID messaging, arguing that the president has taken pains to avoid infection himself while drawing large and mostly maskless crowds for his signature rallies.

At the same time, Biden continued to dodge questions on one of the most consequential decisions he could face if elected president: whether he would support left-wing calls to do away with the Senate filibuster and/or attempt to pack the Supreme Court. “Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue,” Biden said, repeating the line he’s used in recent days. Isn’t that the point of a debate?

During the discussion of the final topic, election security and legitimacy, the president once again launched into an angry tirade about “the ballots,” offering dark conspiracies about the forces out sabotage his reelection effort. “We might not know for months, because these ballots are going to be all over. … It’s a rigged election.” Trump made clear that he could see the U.S. Supreme Court playing a role in settling the election and acknowledged that he thought it important that his nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, be seated to help adjudicate any disputes. “This is not going to end well,” he said. “This is not going to end well.”

On January 1, 2020, Biden led Trump in the RealClearPolitics polling average by 5.7 points, 49 to 43.3. After months struggling with a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, a national upheaval on race marked by violence and burning cities, the two men began the debate with Biden leading Trump in the RCP average by 6.1 points, 49.4 to 43.3. It’s hard to imagine anything that happened in the clash last night changing the dynamics of what has been a remarkably steady race.

Conflict in the Caucasus

Elsewhere in the world, the battles were less metaphorical. Long simmering tensions reignited over the weekend in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area of the Caucasus, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 service members and civilians. As Armenia and Azerbaijan—the two countries that claim political authority over the territory—mobilize their forces, surrounding powers with vested interests in the conflict’s outcome have begun to exert their influence.

Fighting in the mountainous region, sometimes referred to as the Republic of Artsakh by local separatists and Armenians, erupted on Sunday after Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to reach a diplomatic agreement. Neither side claims responsibility for escalating the conflict, which has largely been contained to low-grade border skirmishes. Armenian officials allege that Azerbaijan attacked civilians within Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry has moved troops, tanks, drones, and planes into the region as part of a “counteroffensive to suppress Armenia’s combat activity and ensure the safety of the population.”

“The settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is our historical mission,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told his security council on Sunday. “We must resolve this so that historical justice can be restored. We must do so to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”

The decades-old dispute over the region began in the late 1980s, when Nagorno-Karabakh first sought to join with Armenia. After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, former Soviet republics claimed neighboring territories largely based on ethnic makeup. When the Republic of Artsakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, fighting began in earnest and continued until the establishment of an unstable ceasefire in 1994.

Violence again flared up in early April 2016, when the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and the Armenian Armed Forces clashed with the Azerbaijani Armed forces for four days, resulting in an estimated 350 deaths, some civilian. The conflict began when Azerbaijan launched an offensive into the enclave, under the pretense of preventing Armenian shelling that targeted civilians.

With Azerbaijani forces now moving into the region once again, its leaders are adopting similar reasoning. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Armenian forces shelled the Dashkasan region in Azerbaijan.

What started as a regional spat now threatens to become a broader geopolitical conflict. On Tuesday, the Armenian foreign ministry reported that a Turkish F-16 shot down one of its fighter jets in Armenian airspace, killing the pilot. Although Turkey has vehemently denied the allegations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support for Azerbaijan—a predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking nation—and its claim to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. “Turkey continues to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart,” he said Monday, chastising the Armenian “occupation” and blaming Armenian forces for rekindling cross-border fighting.

Russia, on the other hand, has seemingly sought to mediate and de-escalate the conflict. It has maintained a somewhat friendly relationship with both countries, and keeps a large military base in Armenia. “Right now, the most important thing is to cease hostilities and not try to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

The response from Iran, the third major power bordering the region, is more difficult to gauge. “Iran is closely monitoring the conflict with concern and calls for an immediate end to the conflict and the start of talks between the two countries,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said, seemingly adopting the role of peacekeeper. But despite sharing the Shia Muslim faith of Azerbaijan, the two countries have strained diplomacy.

“Azerbaijan and Iran have a tricky relationship,” Michael Rubin, who specializes in Iranian policy at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. “More Azeris live in Iranian Azerbaijan than in independent Azerbaijan. That most Azeris in Azerbaijan have a better living standard than their counterparts in Iran chafes at the Iranian leadership.”

“Under first Obama and then Trump, however, we have largely ignored Azerbaijan,” he continued. “Russia and Iran have therefore moved in to try to co-opt [Azerbaijani capital] Baku. And, don’t forget that Khamenei himself is ethnically Azeri.”

“That said, both Iran and Russia like having relations with both sides. They keep countries on their borders weaker and distracted,” Rubin argued. “If leaders in either country try to have substantive outreach to the United States or other non-regional powers, they can destabilize either, mostly by precipitating the type of fighting we see now.”

Worth Your Time

  • Ever since Trump took office in 2017, super PACs have sprung up in opposition to his presidency. The Lincoln Project has carried the torch for anti-Trump campaign ads in the social media and cable news spheres, boasting 2.2 million followers on Twitter and 487,000 on Instagram. But do these anti-Trump attack ads—Lincoln Project or otherwise—actually persuade undecided voters? A group of Democratic operatives called Fellow Americans launched a data-driven testing methodology earlier this year to answer this question. “Ads that directly attack Trump, using his voice, news clips, or even just his face, have the effect of turning off not only persuadable voters, but also the Democratic-base voters whom Joe Biden needs in November,” writes Peter Hamby in Vanity Fair. Those overly negative anti-Trump ads may be backfiring.

  • The Atlantic released its new project, “The Firsts,” on Tuesday in honor of the children who desegregated America. “We couldn’t sit at the counter or go to restaurants,” recalls Jo Ann Allen Boyce of her first day attending a newly desegregated public high school in Clinton, Tennessee. “We went to the back of the bus; we had our own bathrooms—our own water fountains clearly marked colored only.” This collection of essays provide insight into the brave young activists who fought to make the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education a reality.

  • In a piece for The New Statesman, Ido Vock explores the deteriorating relationship between the Czech Republic and China, and how it could serve as a model for other countries looking to decouple from the Chinese Communist Party. In 2015, Czech President Milos Zeman attended a People’s Liberation Army parade in Beijing; this month, Czech Senate President Nukis Vystrcil visited Taipei and declared “I am Taiwanese” in solidarity. Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised lavish investment in the Czech economy, with the private Chinese energy conglomerate CEFC expected to make most of the investment. But after the initial wave of positive media, the investments largely failed to materialize, and CEFC became embroiled in corruption in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. One CEFC representative offered the president of Chad two million dollars concealed in gift boxes. The Czechs responded with outrage. The episode, Vock writes, is a “useful corrective to the idea that statecraft in a one-party state is ruthlessly effective and can be used to bend small countries to its will.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In the latest issue of Capitolism, Scott Lincicome takes a comprehensive look at the Trump administration’s tariff policy. “Most American manufacturers, as well as the economy more broadly, are worse off; almost every country—allies and adversaries—has retaliated; K Street and the Administrative State are doing what they do best; our farmers may be on a new and permanent dole; and Beijing seems emboldened, not chastened.” But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

  • CBS News’ John Dickerson joined Jonah on the latest episode of The Remnant to discuss his latest book about the American presidency, The Hardest Job in the World. Don’t worry, they squeeze in some rank punditry—and Woodrow Wilson bashing—as well.

  • On the site today, Danielle Pletka and Brett D. Schaefer argue that the U.N. Human Rights Council offers seats to too many authoritarian countries and obsesses on Israel. They lay out needed reforms that could bring the U.S., which left the council in 2018, back into the fold.

Let Us Know

Did last night’s debate change your mind about anything? Are you as amped as we are to tune in to two more of them?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Morry Gash/Getty Images.