I remember the moment well. In the fall of 1992 upstart “Third Way” Democrat Bill Clinton had managed to get by all the bimbo accusations one candidate could muster (at least until Donald Trump) and was debating the incumbent President of the United States, George H. W. Bush. Two moments might have undone the WWII hero and victor in the Gulf War who had seemed impossible to beat a mere year before. Mr. Bush did not know the price of a loaf of bread or quart of milk. Mr. Clinton did. And during a portion of the debate the TV cameras didn’t blink and caught Mr. Bush looking at his watch wishing the debate was over. I believe that was the moment when America began to see the viability of Mr. Clinton as president and the “out of touchness” of Mr. Bush. In the end, Americans still want to kick the tires of their candidates. We often see that in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it’s true everywhere. Until, in this year of living dangerously, it’s not.
Covid will curtail the amount of tire kicking face time and flesh pressing the candidates get with the people of the United States. Perhaps, never since Ronald Reagan demonstrated his amiability vs. the dour Jimmy Carter will more be at stake for Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden during the debates. Americans are likely to tune into the debates as never before trying to assess which of these two poor choices is the lesser of two evils.
I think the entire election could easily turn on the debates. If Mr. Biden perks up, seems to be on his game, fact checks Mr. Trump and makes a cogent case, he can win this thing. If on the other hand, he drifts in and out, rambles, or worse gets irate, he will lose and Mr. Trump won’t have to do anything at all. Mr. Biden needs to take the phrase “Look, man” out of his vocabulary and stick to the facts, his accomplishments, his experience and his personal story which many Americans still do not know. Biden may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he has lived. He has felt pain. He has empathy and he knows tragedy. He’s ready for this.
By contrast, if Trump exaggerates his accomplishments, especially as they pertain to the coronavirus pandemic, and spends most of the debate blowing his own horn he will lose. If, on the other hand, he is uncharacteristically sober and even aloof, swatting Biden away like a pesky fly, Trump can win.
Now let’s be honest, Mr. Trump is the far more experienced TV performer so the pressure is on Biden, as it was on Clinton in 1992, to demonstrate fluency with issues, glibness of tongue and calmness of mien. These are not Biden strengths.
I think the onus is on Biden to win this thing unless Trump goes off the rails and hands it to him, something I consider unlikely as Trump is in his element in TV debates. If the debates are held virtually, that’s advantage Biden as Trump won’t be able to play to a crowd (although he could easily gather one around him even if at a remote location—like the South Lawn).
If this is a real debate, even without much of an audience, advantage goes to Trump and Biden will require a great performance. Unless Trump starts to look at his watch—or at the nearest TV monitor of himself.