With the conventions out of the way, it’s not too early to start thinking about the debates—the last item on the election calendar that might alter its current path. If the candidates heed expert advice—and at least one will—there will be no large gatherings. But the largest is always a virtual one: the debates are watched by more people than any show save the Super Bowl. In 2016 Trump-Clinton attracted 84 million viewers. The first of three is less than a month away.
Donald Trump’s way of preparing is to play the refs. He called the Commission on Presidential Debates “biased,” even as he demanded more and earlier debates. He wants a test, not for the coronavirus, which might make some sense, but for unspecified drugs, which makes none.
Trump also sent a list of 24 suggested moderators, many from the Fox & Friends category, like the admiring Maria Bartiromo. At least Trump isn’t demanding the debates be held in the Rose Garden. Given the president’s knack for turning any gathering into a circus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the former vice president last week he should just call the whole thing off.
For now, three are on. The Trump camp dreams of Joe Biden shuffling to the podium in slippers and a hospital robe, even though the Sleepy Joe trope looks lamer than ever. Out of the basement, Biden jogs daily as if he’s training for a senior marathon that provides the added benefit of a realistic tan.
Although Trump will insist the stage be as cold as a morgue, Biden world expects the president to arrive desperate and covered in flop sweat over polls he insists are wrong, a virus that won’t go away, and rally-deprivation after one in Tulsa likely infected the late, unmasked Herman Cain.
If a debate were a debate like Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon, requiring knowledge and complete thoughts, Trump would be trying to weasel out. But the misnamed modern ones that reward one-liners like “Where’s the beef?” and crude attacks are right up Trump’s alley.
In 2016, the Insult Comic Dog used the forum like no one before him. Did anyone know how low-energy Jeb Bush was, how little Marco Rubio was, or how bad every other candidate could be made to look before Trump went to work on them? On points, Clinton won all three presidential debates, but with antic moments replayed endlessly after, Trump claimed victory.
Three-fifths of voters told Pew Research debates are “somewhat” to “very helpful” in deciding which candidate to vote for, way more than a convention speech, which is good news for Trump since his was panned, even on Fox. Like a teenager on Tik Tok, Trump comes alive when a camera comes on. What lures Trump away from “executive time” in the residence watching himself on TV, and people talking about him on TV, is the promise of more TV time at meetings about nothing with Cabinet officials or CEOs gushing how blessed they are he’s president. There’s never been a bigger TV hound.
By contrast, for Biden, a camera is a signal to cease normal behavior. In public, Biden’s muscle memory of stuttering drives him to talk too fast or too slow and always too long. He’s a collection of fortune cookie Bidenisms from Mom and Dad to Joey and verbal tics: “c’mon, man”, “I’m not joking.” Without malice or an instinct for the jugular, he is hurt when either is aimed at him, most memorably during the primaries when “that little girl,” Sen. Kamala Harris, attacked him for opposing the busing, although not exactly, that took her across town to a better school.
The only path for Biden is not to go high when Trump goes low. Give the question asked 10 seconds and then make the debate, like the campaign, a referendum on the president’s American carnage, how soft he’s been on Putin, how hard on our allies, how indifferent to the reality of one American dying every minute of every day, while offering at best a $300 check with his name on it to millions left unemployed by his neglect.
Point out that his prediction of a rigged election is justification for resisting the results should he lose. Brag like mad—he and Barack Obama turned around a recession and handed Trump the most beautiful economy the world has ever seen. And repeat his challenge to Trump to condemn violence, as Biden has, whether from the right or left, and turn toward him and wait silently until he does.
Trump knows that if the debate is on substance, Biden will have a massive advantage, so he won’t let it happen. Trump will pass his one-liners off as beef: the virus is gone because he’s whipped the “deep state” into producing a vaccine for it at warp speed and unveil another miracle cure. His roaring economy—just look at the Dow Jones!—was interrupted by a pandemic no one saw coming. It has nowhere to go but back up, if Biden doesn’t get his socialist hands on it.
Biden should argue for a single moderator who will follow up but be prepared for Trump taking over as emcee. If there’s no question about Hunter Biden, Trump will get one in. If Biden doesn’t reply by asking Trump about his adult children living large off the government and the criminal referrals of son Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, he doesn't deserve to be president.
Nothing animates Trump more than proving he’s more on top of things than Biden, nervy for a septuagenarian who regularly mangles his best words and loses his train of thought. “Yo Semites” Park, anyone? And nothing pleases him more than boasting about “acing” a basic Alzheimer’s test by repeating five words in a row. It’s hard to see how he steers the conversation there but I suggest a drinking game for every time he tries.
Throughout it all, Trump the con man will lie more convincingly than Biden tells the truth. Adding to his count of 20,000 are 25 premeditated ones fed into the teleprompter for his convention speech. Left to his own devices, there’s no telling how fast and furious the whoppers will fly. CNN tried to run a fact-checking chyron during Trump’s briefings but couldn’t keep up.
On her way out the door to spend more time with her family fractured by her blind devotion to the president, senior White House counsel Kellyanne Conway revealed Trump’s ace in the hole: "The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order." Forget that Trump has encouraged the chaos and anarchy and vandalism. Like Nixon, Trump believes voters are one charred police station and looted store away from coming home to daddy.
If this is the most important election, and debates, of a lifetime, Biden should match Trump’s demands with his: turn over your tax returns as every candidate has for 40 years. If Trump wants the TV exposure badly enough to produce them, Biden will have accomplished what no prosecutor, court, or House committee has. If not, Biden should consider Pelosi’s advice and call the whole circus off. Otherwise, the best man could lose.