What Matters in Tonight’s Debate

Win McNamee / Getty

This evening we’ll see Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the same stage, in the first of what are scheduled to be three debates.

I will confess that I did not think this event would occur—and I am still not sure about the subsequent ones. So many things are outside usual norms this year; so many points of potential disagreement could arise (would there be an audience? who would be the moderators? what about fact checkers—or mask requirements, or allowing the candidates to direct questions at each other?); so little enforcement power is in the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates, or the networks, or anyone except the candidates and parties themselves.

Many people assume, “Oh, sure, we’ll have debates,” but it turns out that these are among the many fragile norms of modern politics. After the most famous televised debate, which nearly everyone has heard of, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, there were no debates for half a generation. Not in 1964, nor 1968, nor 1972, and not until 1976—and then only because incumbent Gerald Ford, far behind Jimmy Carter in the polls, agreed to meet him in debates. (For the record, I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign then, including in debate prep.)

Even after the debate tradition was revived in 1976, there was only one debate in 1980—because Jimmy Carter, as the incumbent, would not agree to debates that included not just Ronald Reagan but also the third-party candidate, Republican Representative John Anderson of Illinois.

But here we are. I’ve done print-magazine previews of the previous debate cycles in this century. These include: “An Acquired Taste,” 20 years ago, about the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush; “When George Meets John,” in 2004, about Bush and John Kerry; “Rhetorical Questions,” about Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008; “Slugfest,” in 2012, predicting that the incumbent Obama would not sufficiently prepare for Mitt Romney; and “When Donald Meets Hillary,” four years ago, in which I quoted Jane Goodall on the resemblances between Donald Trump’s on-stage demeanor and the “dominance rituals” she had seen among male chimps.

That was then. This time, I’ll do live commentary on this site. Kickoff comments, an hour before things begin:

  • Usually debates don’t really “matter.” Tonight’s encounter is a moment of high drama—as I’ll get to, in a moment. And from the annals of debate history a handful of moments stand out and have even become part of popular lore. For instance in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, then Michael Dukakis’s Democratic running mate, dressing down Dan Quayle, then running with George H. W. Bush, with “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Or eight years earlier, Ronald Reagan lightly dismissing the earnest Jimmy Carter with, “There you go again.” They have been, at times, gripping TV. But political scientists are unconvinced that they have really been decisive axes in most elections.
  • But we watch anyway, for two reasons. One is: Debates bring the two presidential contenders together in the same place at the same. That almost never happens otherwise. The other: They’re live. Anything can happen. As I write, I don’t know whether one candidate or the other might say or do something significant. No one knows, which is why we watch.
  • The results are already predictable. Trump supporters will think that Trump has won. Biden supporters and Trump opponents will not. Everything about Trump—his showmanship strengths, his accuracy and comportment weaknesses—is well known, and allowed for, by those who support him and those (like me) who don’t. I have learned that my imagination cannot fully encompass current realities, but it’s hard for me to imagine Trump saying or doing anything that would erode his base of report.
    A related point: “Winning” or “losing” in debates, even in more reality-based times than our own, has virtually nothing to do with policies or ideas or factual disputes. It’s about comportment, confidence, the dreaded “likability,” and other factors making voters feel comfortable with the idea of you in their living room.
  • The incumbent curse: As I mentioned in my Bush-Kerry and Obama-Romney pieces, an incumbent president usually struggles in the first debate of a fall campaign. (Also as mentioned, incumbent Jimmy Carter’s first debate against Ronald Reagan was his only debate, which magnified the effects of his relatively weak performance in that one.) For most presidents, this is because of the preceding years of deference from all they meet, who don’t dare say, “You’re just wrong…” How this will affect a man like Donald Trump, I dare not guess.
  • The related “expectations game”: Since there is no objective way to determine winners and losers, for decades political aides had worked on beating expectations. This is the political version of beating the point spread in sports wagering. “Our guy held his own,” “he was ready for all their attacks,” “she did surprisingly well”—judgments like these dominate post-debate spin. As I mentioned in my 2004 piece, George W. Bush and his team very consciously played this game. How could he, a humble Texas lad, hope to match fancy phrases with silver-tongued John Kerry? (He had previously used this strategy against Ann Richards during Texas gubernatorial debates.)
    For reasons I can’t explain, Trump representatives have mainly tried the opposite strategy with Biden—stressing that he is old, senescent, can barely string together words. We’ll see how this pans out. (After Biden gave a very effective speech at the Democratic National Convention, commentary from Trump partisans was, “That’s nothing, anyone can read from a prompter.”)
  • The big unknown: Whether Biden and his team will decide to go
    angry/outraged in response to Trump’s foreseeable attacks—on Hunter Biden, on Biden’s mental state, on his life in “the swamp,” et cetera—or instead to seem genially dismissive and above the fray. A tell for the first approach would be remarks on the lines of “how dare you...”; for the second, a counterpart to “There you go again,” or even “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
  • The other big unknown: How the moderator, Chris Wallace, will wrestle with the foreseeable farrago of false claims by Trump. In his interview shows, he has directly said, “Sir, that’s not true.” Presumably he will leave most of that work to Biden, but some may fall to him.

We’ll see. In the meantime, here are two other articles that I think do a good job of discussing the knowns-and-unknowns this evening.  One is by Bill Goodykoontz, in AZ Central. The other is by Matt Cooper, in The Washington Monthly.

Will weigh in later this evening.