The President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden face off on September 29 for the first of three Presidential debates and everyone is worried. Not, of course, for the same reasons. My Trumper friends (yes, I have a few) claim they are confident that the senile, sleepy, gaffe-prone former VP will be crushed. My Biden friends are equally confident that the tactics that arguably worked for Trump in 2016 against other Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton won’t work this time. One friend told me, “The crows are coming home to roost; he can’t lie his way to winning the debate.”
Although I patiently listen to this stuff, I suspect both sides are not only worried about the debates, but also worried that the outcome could decide the 2020 election. I’m not so sure about the entire election, but as someone ready for a change, I’m worried about Biden despite expecting Trump to do poorly in the debates. Trump has a record of defying expectations. After all, when Trump stalked Clinton in one of the 2016 debates, some voters, for reasons only a psychiatrist may be able to explain, claimed that it was a winning tactic. Bullies, I suppose, always will have someone cheering them on.
In preparation for the 9/29 debate, Trump already has planted the seed that Biden requires drugs to enhance his performance. He suggests that it is physiologically impossible for the candidate who did so poorly in many of the interminable Democratic candidate debates, to be the Biden we see today. According to him, only a good sniff of cocaine could produce the clear-headed, articulate Biden.
What does it tell us that Trump already has planted seeds for trying to explain away his defeat in the first debate? It tells us that he is worried. He clearly wanted Sanders as his opponent so he could use the fight against communism as a theme of his campaign. The [censored] he has thrown at Biden so far, hasn’t worked, much to Trump’s chagrin. Biden doesn’t want to defund police, encourage riots, invite China to take over America, encourage late-term abortions, or take away everyone’s guns.
Mind you, Trump will continue similar “appeals” in coming weeks against Biden, so this campaign isn’t over yet. But the debates provide a unique opportunity for both candidates to quash allegations made against them. Biden has answers, I hope, for everything Trump throws at him. I am confident that his aides are rehearsing answers as I write this. Is it OK if I still worry about how it will work?
And Biden will attack Trump for failing to respond adequately to COVID-19. He also will suggest that Trump has stoked the fires of racism, indirectly promoting some violence that continues in cities. He also will suggest that Trump is a world-class liar. Trump will have answers ready for each of these and many other allegations, but his principal strategy will be to discredit Biden. What better way of fending off nasty facts—more than 200,000 dead from COVID-19, for example—than by calling your opponent a senile old man or suggesting that he is even more corrupt than Hillary Clinton, the most notorious criminal of the 21st century?
While I wouldn’t want to be Trump on September 29 (or any other day), I remain worried that Biden could get angry and flustered if Trump attacks him for the Ukrainian crime wave or anything else. What if attacks on his family, especially his son Hunter, are his Achilles’ heel?
Going into the debate, I think Trump has a heavier lift. Unlike Biden, he has a record for the past four years to defend. If I supported Trump, I would be worried about how you claim to have done a great job on COVID-19 with more than 200,000 already dead and epidemiologists suggesting a widely-available vaccine might not be available until late fall 2021. How do you lie your way out of that?
Additional Trump worries include his mispronouncing words, having trouble walking across the stage, and encountering the wrong moderator. Chris Wallace of Fox News will moderate the first debate and, as a few recent interviews have demonstrated, he is no pushover. Wallace has a lot to gain by standing up to Trump if Trump openly lies in the debate or otherwise misbehaves. Trump himself should be worried.
I will be tuned in on the 29th. Let me stick my neck out and suggest that both sides will claim victory. I plan to make a call on that debate, as well as the two others (October 15 and 22), in future columns. Stay tuned.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.