If Joe Biden doesn’t soil himself on stage tonight, he will win the first debate. If you think that’s an unfairly low bar for the former vice president, take your complaints to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Donald Trump has bet so much on Biden being a blithering idiot that it almost doesn’t matter what Trump himself does or says. Down in the polls, Trump desperately needs a game-changer, but he’s dependent on Biden’s poor performance to give him one. In sports vernacular, Trump doesn’t control his own destiny. Biden does.
Extra heat is going to be on Trump because of the New York Times’ revelations that he has paid little in taxes, and reports that he has “hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due.” This opens the door to several questions, including why Trump voters should pay more in income taxes than the president, as well as the potential for his conflicts of interest becoming a national security threat.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy night for Biden, who has to avoid stepping on a rake. But can he? He’s already following step one, which is to arrive tanned and rested.
Step two is harder: to find a way to mitigate Trump’s superpower, which is making fun of people.
That’s not to say Trump’s attacks will be purely superficial. Trump will hit Biden on the fact that he’s been in the federal government for 40 years, and hasn’t solved these (whatever problems Biden brings up) problems in the past, so why should we expect him to do so now?
Preparation will help Biden absorb hits like that, but dealing with the outright lies and mockery is much harder. What does Biden do if Trump goes there—if Trump goes after his son, Hunter Biden?
Practice helps, but this is not really something you can really prepare for. Is Biden the kind of person vulnerable to put-downs, or not? I think we will know the answer in the first 15 minutes or so. This is the kind of thing that is often sorted out in the school yard.
If Trump provokes Biden into making gaffes like saying 200 million people have died of COVID-19, that’s a success. If it becomes clear that Biden has lost more than a step, then it becomes serious. I’m not predicting this will happen. Indeed, the odds are very small. But make no mistake, lurking somewhere in the back of every Biden supporter’s head is the fear that Biden will implode. “Never before has there been the potential for so much change from a debate, and the probability for so little,” says Dan Hazelwood, a Republican campaign consultant.
But that’s the worst-case scenario. While Trump tries to wing it, there’s also a danger that Biden may arrive with a bunch of one-liners he’s been working on for weeks. This dynamic normally redounds to the prepared challenger's advantage, but Trump’s ability to deflect while simultaneously hurling insults is instinctual.
What is more, not everybody can deliver a well-rehearsed zinger. If you try, you’d better stick the landing, and snappy rejoinders have never been Biden’s strong suit. A recent New York Times opinion piece argued that Biden should use “humor and ridicule” against Trump. This strikes me as dicey advice that could just as easily backfire. After Trump challenged Biden to a drug test (Trump apparently thinks Biden is both a good debater and senile?), Biden’s campaign shot back with this: “Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it. We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”
Attempts at humor often fail, and, besides, I’m not sure it’s good to get into a pissing match with Trump.
Instead, Biden should respond to one of Trump’s early attacks by saying, “That’s what’s wrong with our politics. I’m not going to play those games. I’m going to focus on substance.” He should then act as if this is a policy interview with Chris Wallace, and ignore Trump—which will have the added benefit of driving Trump crazy.
This is a plan that is easily executable. It’s sustainable. Biden is the adult, Trump is the child.
From there, Biden’s goal is simple: Avoid mistakes, and come across as likable and competent.
The X Factor is moderator Chris Wallace—not exactly a bland, safe Jim Lehrer-style moderator. Wallace says he won’t be fact-checking candidates, but his M.O. is to anticipate BS evasion tactics and force real answers, so don’t expect him to recede into the background either. When Wallace asks Trump, for example, about paying just $750 a year in taxes (and some years, $0!), I can’t imagine there won’t be a good follow-up question (or two).
As host of Fox News Sunday (not to mention a tough-as-nails veteran journalist), Wallace can ding Trump without being credibly accused of liberal bias. Indeed, Wallace recently grilled Trump in an interview, a fact that makes me wonder why Trump would want to subject himself to a repeat performance.
Still, I think that Wallace may prove an even bigger test for Biden, who hasn’t endured many tough interviews for months, than for Trump.
But remember, he just has to not implode and he’s gold. There is a low bar for Biden, but there is a bar, nonetheless.
If Biden, a seasoned political veteran who has performed well in past debates, can survive 90 minutes on stage Tuesday night without drooling on himself, then he essentially “wins” the first debate—and is well on his way to victory in November.
The reason this is a dramatic moment is that there is some small, but non-zero chance, that he can’t clear this hurdle. This is Biden’s debate to lose, but if he falters, it could all come crumbling down.