Last weekend, Philippe Reines walked over to Ron Klain’s house in Washington, D.C., to hand off his Donald Trump outfit: the suit, the shoes with the lifts, the shirt, the long red tie, the cufflinks. Just in case. When the former Hillary Clinton aide stored the outfit in a bag after playing Trump in debate prep four years ago, a part of him thought it might one day be in her presidential library.
Klain ran Clinton’s debate prep, and he’s doing it again this year for Joe Biden. Klain has a rule against discussing the process, but he did tell me that no one is going to be putting on the outfit this year. The former vice president doesn’t like mock debates—he prefers to read research briefings and have a collection of aides fire questions at him.
Trump says he isn’t preparing at all ahead of the first debate, which is set for September 29. And many Americans aren’t particularly interested: In a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 44 percent said the events are “not at all important” for deciding their vote; 18 percent said they were “extremely important,” and 11 percent said “quite important.” Almost every Democratic operative I’ve spoken with in the past few weeks remains petrified that Biden is going to bungle the debates in a way that costs him the election—perhaps by looking old or confused, confirming the worst paranoia and conspiracy theories about him being unfit for the job. They see the debates as Biden’s best chance to blow an election that, based on the current polls, seems like his to lose.
Conventional wisdom has set in that the opening minutes of the first debate will be the most important. But many Democrats will be holding their breath all the way through the final seconds of the third debate, on October 22. Biden’s stumbles tend to come after he’s been under pressure for long stretches, such as in last September’s primary debate, when he said late in the evening that children should improve their vocabulary by sitting with a record player, or when he snapped at the end of a radio interview in May that “you ain’t Black” if you don’t support him.
Biden’s closest aides aren’t particularly nervous. They viewed the primary debates as necessary to attend but essentially irrelevant to the race, and they feel the same way now. If elections were won by following debate-club rules, Clinton would be the president and Elizabeth Warren would be the 2020 Democratic nominee. And since Biden wrapped up the nomination, as they have pointed out repeatedly, this has been a remarkably stable race. The team still thinks that the best way to beat Trump is to let him defeat himself with his own comments and pandemic mismanagement.
“The notion that some exciting debate moment—by either candidate—is going to make people forget Donald Trump is responsible for thousands of dead Americans and fundamentally shift this race is ludicrous. There’s also no evidence in recent history [that] debates can ever have that kind of impact,” a person who's spoken with Biden’s debate advisers, but who requested anonymity to discuss the private preparations, told me.
The biggest X factor, as always with debates, is the media coverage, which will shape people’s perceptions of the contest. Thousands of Americans are dying each week during the pandemic, millions are out of work or are about to be, cataclysmic fires and storms are hammering the country, and violent clashes have broken out in some places. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the Supreme Court’s future is now uncertain. And Biden and Trump don’t know each other at all. They met only once, at Trump’s inauguration, and haven’t spoken other than a brief performance-art phone call in the spring, when they were supposedly trying to work together to fight the pandemic. Going at each other face-to-face shakes up the dynamics for any candidate. Even socially distant, this could lead to surprises. Will political journalism’s glee for marquee events and Twitter giggles inflate the true significance of some onstage flicker? Will the pursuit of non-bias create an equivalency between the number and nature of Biden’s and Trump’s fumbles and falsehoods?
“He could have cared less about answering the questions or even giving accurate information. He came prepared to insult, to bully, to loom over with his presence,” Hillary Clinton said at a recent fundraiser for Biden, reflecting on her own experience with Trump. But by looming over her and implying that he was being tough, Trump managed to wring some upsides out of three debates, which Clinton won by any technical measure.
Reines cautioned against seeing 2016 as too much of a model, though. “He’s in a very different situation. His bag of tricks are the same, but they’re not working—certainly not working as well,” he told me.
I asked Reines, with all the time he’s spent studying Trump, what he would do if Klain asked him to suit up again for prep. He told me he would go at Biden by saying early on that “everyone can see Biden is losing the debate,” and then push the idea that Biden wasn’t physically or mentally well. Reines said he’d include lots of swings at Biden’s son Hunter, whose business dealings in Ukraine prompted the phone call that led to Trump’s impeachment.
“It is possible to be a terrible debater and be very hard to debate at the same time,” Reines added later. “And Donald Trump has gotten harder to debate—it is harder to understand him, it is harder to follow him, because it’s just one big non-sequitur; he’s telling so many lies, it’s impossible to think that you alone are going to fact-check him.”
But the way Biden behaved in the primary debates isn’t necessarily a great guide to how he will show up against Trump—a fact that the president and his aides seem to be preparing for as they build an ouroboros of contradictory expectations, including that Biden is effectively brain-dead, on performance-enhancing drugs, a stumbling idiot who can’t get his words out, and a debater with skills on par with Cicero’s.
The key difference that Biden’s aides are counting on: He doesn’t like taking shots at his fellow Democrats, but he enjoys whaling on Republicans. He’s good at it—or at least he was the last time he had the chance, in the 2012 vice-presidential debate against Paul Ryan. Biden hates being pulled to the liberal edge of the party, like he was in the primaries, but loves to portray himself as the middle-of-the-road guy standing up for common sense.
“Whether it’s in a debate or on the campaign trail or even just in meetings, he is one of these old-school Democrats who doesn’t like to challenge or criticize people in his own party,” says David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. Going up against a Republican, and one who clearly offends him so viscerally, Biden “will feel no hesitancy to let loose,” Plouffe predicts.
There are voters ready to bolt from Trump who wonder about Biden’s basic competency. There are core Democrats nursing desperate Mortal Kombat fantasies about the showdown with Trump. Plouffe thinks Biden will reach both groups by going hard. “He’s not going to lose anything by being aggressive and tough and really going after Trump with fury,” Plouffe told me.
At 90 minutes each, these debates are shorter than the two-hour Democratic-primary duels, which will probably help both candidates. Trump and Biden are in their mid-70s, and neither has done well with longer formats. Biden always prefers giving lengthy answers, and he’ll be able to do that, rather than trying to wade through a 10-way free-for-all.
In the run-up to the first primary debate, I wrote about how rusty Biden would likely be, given that he’d debated once in the previous 11 years, unlike his opponents, who’d each been running campaigns and debating constantly. And he was rusty, apparently unused to being challenged to his face.
Trump is good at projecting a gruff strength and at weaponizing his grievances with the media. But now it’s the president who hasn’t debated for years, and who—outside of press conferences, and a decimating interview with Axios in August—has faced questions only from within the Fox News fishbowl. Perhaps more importantly, Trump seems to have been staring into that fishbowl. Speaking at the White House recently, Trump described one night’s worth of his own TV time: “I watched Liz MacDonald [on Fox Business]; she’s fantastic. I watched Fox Business. I watched Lou Dobbs last night, Sean Hannity last night, Tucker [Carlson] last night, Laura [Ingraham]. I watched Fox & Friends in the morning. You watch these shows; you don’t have to go too far into the details.”
The result isn’t just a skewed sense of reality, but an almost Comic-Con-level of reliance on inside jokes and obscure references that make sense only to superfans who know the lingo. If Trump starts going on about “the lover of Peter Strzok” or campaign donations to Andrew McCabe’s wife, as he regularly does, will anyone but FBI-conspiracy buffs know what he’s talking about?
Even if voters do know, will anyone be won over? Or will it look like a concentrated form of the town hall Trump did on ABC this past week, in which he seemed unable to process a Black man confronting him to ask when in history America had been great for Black Americans, and unaware that most Americans don’t own “$10,000 worth of stock in IBM or whatever company it may be.”
Biden has been living in a different kind of bubble. Until recently, he was holding press conferences only once a month. And—with the exception of an interview last week with CNN’s Jake Tapper—Biden has been sticking with short, remote interviews with local television stations rather than high-stakes national appearances. But onstage Thursday night for his own town hall, on CNN, his preparation was evident. Biden shifted smoothly between laughing at Trump and condemning him. He had lines meant to undermine Trump (“If the president had even remote confidence he was likely to win the election, he wouldn’t be doing this,” he said about Trump’s claims of election fraud), lines meant to condemn the choices he’s making leading the country (“What are we talking about here?”), digs (“He may be really losing it”), and attacks on topics as varied as vaccines and farm policy.
Trump stayed seated for his entire town hall, while Biden stood for all of his. Trump spent the week attacking Biden for reading off a teleprompter—while using one himself. Bill O’Reilly, the disgraced former Fox News host, was left rationalizing Trump’s performance by arguing that Biden must have gotten the topics in advance.
Maybe America’s obsession with presidential debates is pointless. For all those endless hours of the 10 primary debates, nothing happened onstage that affected the actual dynamics of the race for more than a few minutes. There is only one memorable moment: when Kamala Harris garroted Biden over busing, and seemed on the verge of destroying his campaign. But even that didn’t change the result; that’s his name on the campaign logo, and hers underneath.