No matter the election outcome, I consider former Vice President Joe Biden to have run a generally smart and disciplined campaign from beginning to end: at the outset, making maximum benefit of his name recognition, residual personal and Obama Administration good will; doing well enough in the Democratic presidential debates to maintain his standing; while a series of adversaries briefly shone, shrewdly pinning his prospects for the Democratic nomination on African American support in the South Carolina primary (a state that he will, ironically, probably lose to President Trump); presenting himself throughout as moderate, sane and empathetic (which, by all accounts, he is); picking U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, who – despite my posted misgivings – has turned out to be a safe and effective choice; and focusing his attention almost exclusively on swing states with understandable (given the polls) forays into Ohio. He’s gotten some breaks. He was first assisted by having his moderate rivals, who had seen what happened to the Republicans in 2016, endorse him before an arguably unelectable outsider, U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, could seize the nomination. In starkly political terms, he was aided by the outrage attending the killing of George Floyd and, primarily, by the Coronavirus, which brought into naked relief President Trump’s narcissism and incompetence, for months diverted attention from any attacks that Republicans planned to level at him, and enabled him to mostly stay out of sight – gaffe-free, while demonstrating responsible Coronavirus behaviors.
In contrast, President Trump has thrown off the fetters of the Coronavirus (both the national crisis and his own affliction) and thus far reverted to his campaign brew of chaos, incendiary rhetoric, and questionable allegations. The polls indicate that his strategy may be helping him. The mental image of the contest seems a boat race in which the gap appears to be narrowing as Mr. Trump revs the outboard while Mr. Biden maintains smooth sail toward shore.
One can never tell in the Alternate Trump Universe in which we are trapped, but tonight’s debate may be the last major test for Mr. Biden’s steady approach. Since reports indicate that he has been preparing for the last couple of days, presumably he sees it as so. Each candidate has advantages and disadvantages in this last confrontation.
First, Mr. Trump’s advantages and Mr. Biden’s disadvantages. After the President’s boorishly buffoonish debate performance in late September – when he may or may not have been infected with COVID – expectations for him will be low. The Trump Campaign has been doing a much better job at the “low expectations” game than it did before the first debate, while decrying the “unfairness” of the debate format it agreed to. Mr. Trump can behave when he has to – the last two weeks of his 2016 presidential campaign showed that – and my guess is that whether or not he admits it, he realizes that his all-out assault on Mr. Biden in the first debate backfired horribly, and that he needs to look restrained and reasonable to have any hope of persuading the modicum of swing state swing voters he needs. I expect him to take his shots, but to be more the 2016 presidential debater, when he did reasonably well against Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton.
An aside: each candidate’s microphone will be muted when the other is giving his opening statement on each debate topic (but not during the topic’s ensuing open discussion). This change in debate rules is apparently at the behest of the Biden Campaign, which is reportedly seeking a “more ordered” debate. This, against Mr. Trump, was just dumb, one of the few unforced errors the Biden team has made. The more opportunity Mr. Biden gives the President to discard his restraint, to show his true colors, the better Mr. Biden looks. The more Mr. Biden seemingly hesitates — perhaps merely while constructing a work around for his stuttering — in ways not attributable to Mr. Trump’s interruptions, the greater the possibility of increased voter misgivings about Mr. Biden. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt comments that Republicans are masters at aiming at intuition, while Democrats appeal to language-based reasoning, and that intuition trumps [if you will ;)] reasoning every time. Democrats can turn the tables by giving Mr. Trump as much chance as possible to evoke the visceral personal distaste that polls show most not in the Trump Cult feel for him.
Mr. Biden’s advantages and Mr. Trump’s disadvantages: Mr. Trump’s potential lack of restraint, and the fodder Mr. Trump has given Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden should look for the opportunities to use these:
When Mr. Trump makes his latest claims about Hunter Biden, take your pick:
“You’ve said I’m a criminal that should be arrested. Are you standing here tonight saying that I am a criminal that should be arrested?” (No matter what Mr. Trump says, Mr. Biden wins the visual).
“You’re basing your claim on a lead provided by Russians [ding] to your lawyer, Rudy Giuliani [ding], for a story in the New York Post, owned by the owner of Fox News [ding].”
“You don’t have the guts to face Putin, but you’re going after my son to hurt me.”
No matter what Mr. Trump says in his own defense: “You sat on your hands, and now over 200,000 of our people are dead. You deny, people die.”
“The other day, you called Dr. Anthony Fauci an idiot. Do you think you know more about how to protect us than he does?”
“We were each supposed to take a COVID test before the first debate to protect each other. I took the test. Did you?” [If Mr. Trump says he did, Mr. Biden can point out that Mr. Trump said in his NBC Town Hall that he didn’t remember; he can call upon Mr. Trump – right there – to authorize Mr. Trump’s physicians to reveal his testing regime to the public. If Mr. Trump repeats that he can’t remember, Mr. Biden can say, “I thought I was the one that wasn’t able to remember.”]
Mr. Biden’s concluding statement, no matter what the actual specified topic, needs to be: “Do you want four more years of this?” [Let the viewer fill in the “this.”]
Tonight, we see.