Oct 1, 2020

New rules for the debate.

New rules for the debate.

Plus, why isn't popular legislation passed?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The debate commission may change the rules. Plus, a question about why popular legislation doesn’t pass.

Image: Tangle Instagram / Magdalena Bokowa

Reader feedback.

Laura from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who switched from registered Democrat to Republican this year, said "I definitely don't think anyone 'won' that debate. I generally ride the line in politics — I honestly wish the third parties were allowed to debate. Because the parties are clearly two opposites and we will get nowhere continually pitting them against each other and not working together. I do think that Chris Wallace definitely showed bias in how he 'moderated' that debate. Yes, Trump interrupted far more times (as expected) but it's sad to me that the moderator only berated one person for those behaviors. Perhaps, I see it this way because I do lean more toward the right during this election."

Hannah from Los Angeles, California wrote in to say "I do think it’s really unfortunate that you mention Biden’s trouble speaking, stuttering, and stammering without mentioning his very public battle with a speech impediment even once. I used to live with someone with a speech impediment, and there are certain words and letters they catch on," she said, noting that stutterers often get caught on specific letters and Biden was usually stammering when a sentence began with an "R" or an "S." "In a race where one of the main arguments against Joe is he’s senile, and you mention multiple times that he stammered or struggled to finish a thought, I think it’s really important to the integrity of an article to put the context around it."

Quick hits.

  1. COVID-19 cases are up in 25 states and testing is up 9% nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project. 935,000 COVID-19 tests are being conducted per day and the U.S. is averaging 43,000 new cases a day over the last week, nearly identical to the week before.
  2. Republicans distanced themselves from President Trump’s failure to unambiguously condemn white supremacy during the presidential debate on Tuesday, including a rare condemnation from the Senate’s top Republican. Trump told reporters Wednesday that he did not know who the Proud Boys were, the far-right group he told to “stand down and stand by” on Tuesday night.
  3. 837,000 more Americans filed for jobless benefits last week, with the total number of people claiming unemployment insurance ticking up slightly to 26.5 million.
  4. Congress averted a government shutdown on Wednesday after President Trump signed a stopgap funding bill. The bill, called a continuing resolution, will fund the government through December 11th and allows negotiations on a new coronavirus relief package to remain ongoing. “It includes an additional $8 billion for nutrition assistance programs and renews provisions of public health and transportation programs,” CBS reported.
  5. President Donald Trump is winning the voter registration battle in key states, according to a new NBC News report. Republicans have added 444,723 registrants in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania versus 225,623 new Democrats.


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What D.C. is talking about.

Yesterday, the presidential debate commission announced it was going to adopt new rules for the debates before October 15th, when Donald Trump and Joe Biden are set to meet for the second time. The debate “made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission said.

It’s not unheard of for the debate commission to adopt new rules, but the circumstances of these changes were extraordinary. Tuesday’s debate received a widely negative response across the political spectrum, and because of constant interrupting and bickering between the candidates very few issues were actually fleshed out. Even by a narrow definition of interruption, The Washington Post counted 90 total interruptions in the 90-minute debate, 71 of which were committed by the president and 19 by former vice president Joe Biden.

One of the possibilities for changes is to give the moderators an opportunity to cut off the candidate’s mic who isn’t speaking when their opponent is talking, according to a source who spoke to the Associated Press about the plans. 73.1 million people watched the debate on television, more than any other television event since the Super Bowl, but still fewer than the 84 million who tuned in for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s first debate. The next debate is October 15th in Miami, and will be moderated by ABC’s Martha Raddatz.


There is little disagreement about the quality of Tuesday’s debate. Regardless of which side felt their candidate looked better, both sides seemed to agree the debate was a “spectacle” and not in a good way. An Axios-SurveyMonkey poll of 2,618 adults showed the three words Americans most associated with the debate were “Chaotic, Trump and variations on the word shit.” A majority of Republicans (57%) and independents (61%) said their primary reaction was disappointment, according to Axios.

What the right is saying.

The right is not supportive of any rule changes. To them, the left is “only doing this because their guy got pummeled last night,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said. “President Trump was the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs.” That sentiment was omnipresent across the right wing media yesterday.

Becket Adams wrote in The Washington Examiner that the commission “threatens its own legitimacy by announcing these changes amid the 2020 campaign season.”

“The commission obviously has the right to change its rules,” Adams wrote. “It has the right to do so [at] its discretion. But it also probably should have waited until after the 2020 election to do anything about the handling of future presidential debates. Instead, it announced that it will implement new rules effective immediately, giving the impression that [it] is acting specifically against one candidate, as members of the press certainly believe it is. And just like that, the commission is in danger of becoming yet another institution suspected of partisan allegiances.”

In The National Review, David Harsanyi argued that “the biggest problem with the debates is their antiquated, heavily moderated, strictly time-constrained format, which incentivizes candidates to give the least forthcoming answers imaginable.” Harsanyi suggested something more akin to a podcast episode, where the conversations were free flowing and candidates had a chance to give depth to their positions. “Let the debates run for three hours — or for however long it takes. Stop providing candidates with the topics of discussion beforehand. Allow them to go at it, rather than reining them in every time they accidentally stray into some useful back-and-forth. If a candidate wants to be overly aggressive and interrupt his opponent, let him. He’s the one risking being seen as a bully by voters.”

Stanley Kurtz also wrote in the National Review about the potential changes, saying he felt the debates actually did offer something for voters. “Voters who haven’t decided yet aren’t likely waiting for a nuanced policy debate,” he said. “If they were, they’d already have made up their minds. Instead, undecideds haven’t yet focused as much on the issues as we political junkies have. Undecideds are looking for the big-picture on the candidates’ differences, and that is what they got.” Kurtz cited the conversations about law-and-order, climate change and the economy as illuminating for those voters.

What the left is saying.

The left has generally reacted by questioning whether the remaining debates should happen. Why argue with a petulant child or a dangerous liar? If the rules don’t change, many have suggested the country is better off without the debates at all.

Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times that we should cancel the remaining debates “for the sake of democracy.” Bruni commended the commission for announcing that it was reviewing its rules, but essentially laughed off the prospect of them doing much good.

“If its members fully absorbed President Trump’s 90-minute snit on Tuesday night in Cleveland, then they know that they can show him the way toward decency and give him a few forceful shoves in its direction, but they can never get him there,” Bruni wrote. “That’s the lesson of his entire presidency. The debate just put a gargantuan exclamation point on it… Trump’s core strategy in the debate — reflective of his core strategy overall — was to make voters so disgusted that many would turn away from the election and so distrustful that many would follow his lead should he reject the official results. He’s maneuvering himself into position to steal this election. On Tuesday night he turned the debate commission and every television network and internet site that aired or streamed the event into his accomplices.”

In Slate, Christina Cauterucci took a similar stance, pointing out that the two candidates were in two different realities.

“There were virtually no agreed-upon facts from which to build policy solutions,” Cauterucci said. “Biden said violent crime has increased during the Trump administration; Trump said it’s gone down. Trump said nearly every governor has praised his COVID-19 response; Biden said they haven’t. Every time Biden spoke, Trump interjected with something insulting. Every time Trump spoke, Biden was forced to mutter, over and over again, ‘That’s not true.’ When Biden attempted to explain his health care plan, Trump lured him off track, leading Biden to waste his time bragging about beating Bernie Sanders ‘by a lot.’ People who actually care about the matter of governing a country learned little about how each candidate would do so.”

In The Cut, Angelina Chapin suggested that a format far better than the debates would be filming politicians in unscripted, reality-style television segments where they are trying to fix segments like crime or drug use in their communities. Aside from us fundamentally looking in the wrong place for insight into our politicians, though, she said “the most important reason to ax these particular debates is that Trump uses them to spread lies, knowing that oversimplified sound bites are catchier than nuanced, truthful information.”

“It doesn’t matter that there’s no proof mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud: Research shows that if people hear something repeated enough, they’ll start believing it’s true.”

My take.

I can’t start anywhere other than acknowledging how absurd this is. We’re talking about two grown men, both well into their 70s, who can’t have a conversation without interrupting each other incessantly. Was Trump worse? Yes, he was, by a country mile. But even in a normal year Biden’s 19 interruptions in 90 minutes or his quips of “clown” and “racist” and “shut up” would have almost certainly felt out of place.

It sounds so self-indulgent, but I also can’t help thinking about the damage it does to venues like this newsletter. The very premise of what I’m trying to do is expose people to reasonable, nuanced views they may not agree with. And in one night a presidential debate like this can just drop a nuclear bomb on the already-broken political discourse. Think about the teenagers who tuned in last night to see what politics looks like in America — only to find that the two men vying for the highest office in the land argue with each other with less reason and maturity than 7th graders do. Or think about the young Trump supporters wondering how to debate their friends on politics — now they have their example.

But a mute button? That’s not the answer, either. Even opening that conversation has led to partisan cries of “foul,” so what’s going to happen when ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who works at a network widely seen as antagonistic toward Trump, finally uses it? Or if mics are automatically muted when one candidate is talking, do we really want to prevent them from ever being able to interject or contest a comment?

Do we imagine this is going to calm tempers, cool the room, or give the country a feeling that the debates are being handled with an even hand? And even if that were the case (which it isn’t), the guys in the room are still going to be able to hear each other. Trump could simply keep interrupting and talking while Biden tries to speak, and then it’ll just look as if one of them can’t finish a sentence while the other person — off-mic to us but only six feet from the candidate — continues to blabber. Shoot, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump just walked right over to Biden’s mic and spoke into it.

Not having the debates at all is also out of the question. Do I worry about the president repeatedly suggesting the results are rigged and instructing his supporters to go “watch the polls”? Of course, I do. It’s that type of totally out of bounds and mind boggling crap that has led me to believe he’s not fit for the job. But keeping him off the debate stage won’t stop him from doing that — and won’t stop the message from spreading.

The next debate format is a town-hall style, meaning independent voters will be in the audience and asking the candidates questions. This could be a legitimately valuable moment for the country. Cauterucci argued that “People who actually care about the matter of governing a country learned little about how each candidate would do so,” and I couldn’t disagree more. I think we saw exactly how both candidates would govern. Trump’s temperament on stage was just what so many former and current advisors describe seeing in the briefing room and the Oval Office. Biden, though clearly aged, looked and sounded very much like the senator and former vice president the country has come to know. Voters will have different feelings about how they each conducted themselves, and that’s okay — it’s valuable to see this side of them, too.

Which leads me to a simple and unsatisfying conclusion: the show must go on. I think the right’s perspective that a rules change would only politicize the commission, like everything else that’s been poisoned in this country, is on point. That largely depends on whether you think your guy “won” or not under the previous rules, but still. Anyone who read yesterday’s newsletter knows I think the debate was a net positive for Biden, and even if it was unwatchable and depressing I don’t think a rule change or cancellation is a helpful response. A better on-stage candidate (one imagines a Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders) than Biden would probably have managed to make Trump’s demeanor look even worse, or would have more adeptly evaded and countered his attacks. If the rules are going to change, do it next election cycle. For now, Americans can choose to tune in or not, and if they do, they’ll have a chance to see two very different candidates on stage. That distinction is a good thing for them to take in.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why has it become so difficult to pass legislation that has the support of a large majority of Americans and, more importantly, what can be done about it?

— Jonathan, Birmingham, AL

Tangle: The million-dollar question! I think if I had a rock-solid answer to this, or a solution, I’d probably be in Congress or running for president. But I can certainly give you the general contours.

First, and perhaps most obviously, Congress does very little actual legislating anymore. Lobbyists and leadership are writing most new legislation. I’ve mentioned it before, but Rep. Justin Amash (MI-I) talks about this often. In fact, he just tweeted about it yesterday:

Amash also says he has the solution: “I’ve discussed the solution to this problem many times: Open up Congress,” he said in a follow-up tweet. “Let representatives and senators more freely deliberate and amend. Let the outcomes be discovered rather than dictated. The speaker of the House and Senate majority leader are largely responsible for this.”

Generally speaking, the way Congress functions now is that Republicans and Democrats are each ruled almost entirely by a core group of leaders. Not to romanticize it too much, but in the old days, it was more common that dozens of legislators would sit down and flesh out legislation across the aisle, then debate the bills on the floor of Congress, in the press, and behind closed doors. These days, it seems that leadership comes up with the bills all on its own, packs in favors for members who need them, and then presents the bill to the floor with little time to review it before a vote. The result is predictable: our representatives, the ones who are supposed to be looking out for our local interests, are left deciding “yay” or “nay” based on how they think a bill will impact them politically, with little knowledge of its details.

Second, and perhaps most crucially, is money. Historically speaking, Republicans have always been tied so closely to business that their conflicts of interest were almost an inevitability. That’s why for many years the Democratic party was viewed as the party of working-class Americans. But “Corporate Democrats” is a common pejorative today for a reason — it exists because many Democrats are now funded by the very same people they are drafting bills to legislate. A good example: during the coronavirus relief negotiations, the Paycheck Protection Program was sold to the public as a loan program for mom and pop shops to keep their employees working.

In the middle of negotiating the bill, language was added to open forgivable loans to trade associations. Some of those lobbying groups represent gigantic corporations — behemoths compared to the locally-owned coffee shop down your street — and those corporations cashed in. Many took in millions via the PPP program. Those very same corporations also donated $191 million in cash to Democrats and their re-election campaigns. At the same time, late-stage changes to the Heroes Act made many student loan borrowers ineligible for relief. That’s a good example of “corporate Democrats” taking in money from corporations, rewarding them with favorable legislation, and ignoring lower and middle-class Americans along the way. This kind of thing happens every day.

Third, and easiest for you to control, is our engagement. Not to be blunt, but the answer to overhauling Congress and ushering in an era where the popular will is heeded more often is simple: vote. Activate. Get involved. When’s the last time you called a representative to push for a bill? Politicians are more accessible than most people think, especially local representatives. They hold town halls, they have direct phone lines, they want to win re-election. Local campaigns to organize and push for a bill or legislation do actually work if they are done well and apply pressure to the right representative. Just as we see corporate corruption every day in Congress, we also see months, years or decades of activism come to fruition and change the law.

Reminder: You can ask a question, too. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. I try to answer a reader question in every email.

A story that matters.

Outdoor dining has helped restaurants avoid disaster, but winter is coming. The COVID-19 pandemic has already destroyed much of the restaurant industry, with 100,000 restaurants closing permanently or indefinitely, and restaurateurs expected to lose $240 million this year. But throughout the summer and early fall, outdoor dining has been a lifeline. With winter approaching, those same restaurant owners are worried things could get worse. In New York City, legal outdoor dining was extended for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t solve the simple problem of whether people will show up to sit outside and eat in the cold winter months. Heaters and blankets may not be enough to coax diners in, and “as more evidence is compiled, a picture is emerging that doesn’t bode well for restaurants this winter,” The Washington Post reports. 15.3 million Americans work in the restaurant industry, or about one in 10 American workers.


  • 4,200. The number of New York children who lost a parent to COVID-19 between March and July.
  • 325,000. The number of children nationally who have been forced into poverty or near poverty due to the pandemic.
  • 530,000. Every year, the number of families who fall into bankruptcy because of medical expenses in America.
  • 60%.The percentage of people in CNN’s instant poll who thought that Biden won the debate.
  • 28%. The percentage of people in CNN’s instant poll who thought that Trump won the debate.
  • 47%. The percentage of people in CBS’s instant poll who thought that Biden won the debate.
  • 40%. The percentage of people in CBS’s instant poll who thought that Trump won the debate.
  • 51%. The percentage of people in Data for Progress’s instant poll who thought that Biden won the debate.
  • 39%. The percentage of people in Data for Progress’s instant poll who thought that Trump won the debate.

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Have a nice day.

More than 15,000 students were surprised with free WiFi in America this week. All across the country, children who struggle to access reliable internet are having trouble keeping up in school. So Good Morning America decided to do something to help. The TV show helped “five public school districts located in Allegheny Valley, Pennsylvania, Jackson, Mississippi, Baltimore, Maryland, Santa Fe, New Mexico and South Bend, Indiana” get access to the Web. “They will now have five years of free internet connection in their homes, thanks to T-Mobile's Project 10Million—a program that aims to eventually get free Wi-Fi to 10 million students' households in the US.”

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