On the First Presidential Debate: Part I

[I find the New York Times’ just-released and exhaustively researched piece on President Trump’s income tax returns to offer important information in some areas, and simply reaffirm what most that oppose the President had assumed in other areas.  Although the article is certainly noteworthy – and worthy of a post  🙂 — I’ll venture that it will have less impact on the presidential race than the Presidential Debate upon us.]

There has been a significant amount of Democratic hand-wringing in recent days about Republican presidential nominee and current President Donald Trump’s transparent efforts to cast doubt upon the legitimacy of the presidential race he is seemingly currently losing to Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and the President’s refusal to straightforwardly state that he will cooperate with a peaceful transfer of power in the event that Mr. Biden wins the upcoming election.  It is certainly unnerving to contemplate what might happen when a man, as possessed by malignant psychological defects as Mr. Trump is and possessing the power that Mr. Trump has, might do when facing the reality of an electoral defeat; it’s made me decide to vote in person, despite COVID; even so, obviously the most important immediate priority for Mr. Biden is to indeed win.  Although one cannot dismiss the possibility that an unfortunate gaffe in one the last two presidential debates might adversely affect Mr. Biden’s prospects – some commentators believe that President Gerald Ford lost the 1976 election due to his inexplicable declaration during his second debate with then-Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter that there was then no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe – I will venture that given current trends, an effective showing by Mr. Biden in the first debate this Tuesday evening could provide him a commanding lead that could carry him to a comfortable victory.  On the other hand, a poor showing by Mr. Biden will enable the President to close the gap in key states and truly place the survival of our way of life in God’s hands.  [I’m glad Mr. Biden won’t be reading this; no pressure ;)].

In its potential to affect voter impressions, this debate has aspects of both the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, in which youthful-looking U.S. MA Sen. John Kennedy had to address voters’ doubts that he could stand up to the better-known and aggressive Vice President Richard Nixon, and the second 1984 Reagan-Mondale debate, in which President Ronald Reagan needed to reassure those voters leaning toward him who had developed doubts about his mental acuity due to his uncertain performance in his first debate against U.S. MN Sen. Walter Mondale.  Given independents’ concerns about Mr. Trump, I would suggest that if Mr. Biden appears sharp and effectively counters Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden reassures and wins the only audience that counts:  persuadable swing state voters.  A potential plus:  in this age of information silos, many avid Trump white working class voters in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may not have yet actually seen Mr. Biden in action.  They’ve been fed a steady stream of Fox propaganda that Mr. Biden is demented.  We have two friends, staunch Trump supporters who don’t know each other, that have definitively declared to us that “Biden has lost it.”  If Mr. Biden instead looks coherent, competent, and moderate, this may reduce some of the anxiety fueling these white working class Trump supporters’ enthusiasm for Mr. Trump.  On the other hand, since Mr. Trump is covered by all networks, everybody has seen him in action; it seems unlikely that the President’s debate performance will counter Mr. Biden’s supporters’ unfavorable impressions of him.   

The Washington Post reported last week that although Mr. Trump has actually substantively prepared very little for the debates, the Biden Campaign is concerned about Mr. Biden’s ability to stand up under the barrage that Mr. Trump is expected to throw at him.  From the days of the first Kennedy-Nixon debates, there have emerged a number of Do’s and Don’ts for candidates, such as:  Keep your responses short and sharp; if need be, ignore the question and answer your question; wear a suit that contrasts with the studio background; remember that the TV audience — and not the moderator, your opponent, or the studio audience — is the key.  These will be important, but given – and because of – Mr. Trump’s unique style, I would suggest that Mr. Biden will have debate opportunities at least equal to his challenges if he exploits them wisely.

First, to lament an opportunity lost:  the Biden Campaign did not, as I suggested in a note a while back, utilize U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the stand-in for Mr. Trump, reportedly instead opting for a big white man wearing a navy suit and white shirt with cufflinks.  Ms. Warren may differ from Mr. Trump in size, gender, and cufflinks, but she has the same direct killer debate approach that the President has.  Had Mr. Biden practiced against Ms. Warren, I suspect Mr. Biden would find the actual contests with Mr. Trump a relief.

As to Mr. Trump:  We all have verbal tendencies – phrases we regularly fall back on when well-worn subjects come up.  Mr. Trump has this tendency to an extreme degree.  I would suggest that there are many subjects for which the Biden Campaign can craft short responses that could score against the President.  There are some areas in which I would, frankly, impugn his courage.

In order to keep these notes to a manageable length, we’ll visit the opportunities Mr. Biden might exploit in Part II.

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