It certainly feels as if this has been a long time coming and even now we’re not entirely sure it will happen. But barring some last-minute cancellation or announcement that Joe Biden has come down with a mysterious ailment, we’re scheduled to see the first presidential debate of this election tonight. Speculation had been running rampant as to whether or not Biden’s team would even allow him to debate Trump, but it appears as if that argument has been put to rest. So what should we expect? Democrats are wringing their hands over the possibility that Biden could implode or wander off into some mental wilderness of his own creation on live television, but how likely is that to actually happen? Matt Lewis, writing for the Daily Beast, has a somewhat different interpretation. As he sees it, the bar has been set so low for Joe Biden that he’s basically won the debate before the curtain even rises.
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.
This seems to be the conventional wisdom in punditry circles today. You can find a similar take from Allan Smith at NBC News, who says “if Biden doesn’t pee himself – he will have exceeded expectations.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ll offer up a different interpretation of what’s about to unfold. But first, I will readily agree that Donald Trump himself has set the bar very low for Joe Bidean and inflated expectations regarding his own performance to the point where he will need to knock it out of the park. Also working in Biden’s favor is his well-known history of making gaffes on a regular basis. If he says something ridiculous or flat-out wrong, seasoned observers may shrug their shoulders and just write it off as “Joe being Joe.”
There’s one major factor being overlooked by everyone putting out these lukewarm takes this week, however. I was careful to point out in the last paragraph that some of the reactions I’m anticipating will be coming from “seasoned observers.” And that’s the part that I believe is being overlooked by Matt, Allan and others. People like them, or me, or even you, the reader, are not the target audience for these debates.
All of the pundits, journalists who cover politics, and regular consumers of such content share a few things in common. We’re already up to date on the positions of the candidates and their relative strengths and weaknesses. If you spend any significant portion of your day watching CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News and regularly read the political headlines and browse sites like Hot Air, Huffington Post, or Drudge, the candidates aren’t going to say anything significantly new or surprising tonight. (Unless Chris Wallace asks Joe Biden about fracking, in which case his answer will be both identical to and the opposite of things he’s said in the past.) And I would be amazed if there is one of you out there who doesn’t already know who you’re voting for or if anything said or done on that stage in Cleveland could change your mind.
But I think we sometimes forget that there is a whole nation of people out there who are not political junkies. Most of them who will wind up voting obviously are aware that there’s an election coming up, but they’ve mostly been concerned about the pandemic, the security of their jobs, wildfires and everything else that floods the news cycle. Many frequently seek respite from such horrors with popular entertainment. With that in mind, I would wager that there are a lot of folks who will turn on their televisions tonight expecting to see the latest season of Dancing With the Stars and be startled to realize that there’s a debate about to start. And some of them will wind up tuning in. Those are the people who matter the most in terms of this debate.
What will they take away from the performance? If Joe Biden keeps it together and acts like a calm, well-informed candidate offering solutions different than the policies that have been enacted by President Trump, Sleepy Joe won’t look quite so sleepy to them and they may be persuaded. But if he begins stumbling over his words, making patently false or erroneous claims (like more than half of the people in this country have already died of COVID-19) or simply loses the thread entirely, they will come away with sincere doubts about his viability as the next President. If Trump highlights all of the promises he’s kept and his path to lead us out of the disasters currently underway, those same people may forget some of the media narratives about the Bad Orange Man and be convinced to stick with him for another term. But if he’s “too mean” to Biden and comes off as a bully, they may wander in the other direction.
In summary, that’s why I don’t think this debate is anywhere near over before it begins. And where the bar is set doesn’t matter very much to those who haven’t followed the news closely enough to have an opinion as to where the bar should be. For the people who will actually decide the election in November and haven’t really given a lot of thought to it yet, both of these candidates will be starting with a relatively clean slate tonight.