Tuesday night is the first of three scheduled presidential debates, and as a veteran viewer of every single one of these rapid-fire multiperson press conferences* since 1984, Your Friendly Neighborhood VodkaPundit™ has a few tips for both contenders.
It might even prove to be a preview of tomorrow night’s Debate Drunkblog, but there’s really no telling when dealing with candidates like Donald Trump and Joe Biden. One man throws out the script as soon as it suits him, and the other left the script in the pants he forgot to put on.
Biden: A Trip Down Memory Lane
— Thomas Catenacci (@ThomasCatenacci) August 31, 2020
We know what happens when alleged Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden loses his script.
He says things like this:
COVID has taken this year, just since the outbreak, has taken more than 100 year. Look. Here’s. The lives, it’s just, it’s [unintelligible]. I mean, think about it. More lives this year than any other year for the past hundred years.
On the other hand, Slow Joe is still pretty good when he talks about things that happened before his apparent dementia started to set in.
As Ann Althouse noted about Biden earlier this month:
He is reasonably nimble. He can evade. He’s very evasive. You’ve got to give him that. He’s old and often seems confused, but when cornered, he’s quick to evade.
No matter what the question is, Biden slips very easily into cants he learned to recite for his successful 2012 reelection campaign with Barack Obama. “I’ll tell you what we did do,” he says, “We inherited the greatest recession short of a depression.”
Lots of voters still have warm and fuzzy feelings about the Obama administration, and presumably, not all of them have suffered brain aneurysms or severe drug addiction. Biden would be smart to lean on those warm fuzzies by sticking to the Obama-era stuff he still remembers, and can still recite without much effort.
Biden might even be able to work in some new information, so long as he sticks to the (fake) headline numbers about Trump’s taxes. As “RAYTUS” noted on Instapundit, “When the bulk of questions in tomorrow’s debate are about this [tax issue], and Biden has answers prepared — we’ll know why he hasn’t withdrawn from the debates.”
Indeed. The NYT’s story was almost certainly weeks in the making, and if you think the Biden campaign didn’t get a heads-up long before it was published, I’d love to play some poker with you at the table.
Biden also benefits from the expectations game. Paul Mirengoff warned earlier on Monday that Biden “will be assisted by low expectations. Claims that he suffers from advanced dementia lower the bar considerably.”
If Biden can stick to the things he knows, he might appear reasonably competent.
I don’t know if you remember Biden’s choppy, short, and uninspiring acceptance speech, but just because he showed up with his pants on and said all the words, the Infotainment industry spun his performance into the best thing since the Sermon on the Mount.
Trump: Let the Donald Be the Donald
Incumbents don’t always fare very well in their first debates.
Think back to the one time Mitt Romney showed real spine in 2012, during the initial debate in his series against incumbent Barack Obama.
The subject was foreign policy, and Romney wiped the floor with Obama, who at best looked sour and entitled for most of the time.
A better example might be the 1984 domestic policy debate between Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale.
Reagan had been over-prepped for their first debate. Instead of counting on Reagan’s grace, humor, easy touch, and his impossibly good first-term record to win the day, his aides had crammed him full of dry data.
It didn’t go well.
Before the second debate, Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt (Nevada) promised that “This time we’re going to let Ronald Reagan be Ronald Reagan.”
“He was brutalized by a briefing process that didn’t make sense,” Laxalt said, adding that Reagan went through six full dress rehearsals for the debate in which he was crammed with facts and figures that would have been “unfair for a 21-year-old man.”
This is normally where I’d caution Team Trump to “Let the Donald be the Donald,” but on reconsideration, I realized “I’d like to see you try to stop Trump from being Trump” is probably closer to the truth.
So if Biden’s challenge is to stick to the script, it’s Trump’s job to throw him off of it, and that means—rather than going in overprepared ala Reagan ’84—Trump needs to be just as Trump as ever.
In his Powerline column I linked to above, there’s one place where Mirengoff, I think, got it exactly wrong.
Mirengoff wrote that “the problem for incumbents is overconfidence.” He suspects “this overconfidence leads to insufficient preparation” and that “incumbents tend not to be used to having their statements challenged.”
Normally I’d be loath to argue with Mirengoff, but I’d wager that no president has ever been as challenged by the press — and damn near everyone else in D.C. — as Trump has been. His day-to-day existence since January 20, 2017, has been a 24/7 dress rehearsal for Tuesday’s debate.
Trump isn’t going to knock Biden off the script by being stuffed full of debate prep. He’s going to knock Biden off his script by being Donald Trump: Combative and unpredictable.
Usually, it’s the challenger’s job to be combative and unpredictable, but Trump is no typical incumbent.
Remember that Biden can do just fine sometimes so long as he isn’t challenged directly or consistently. His last debate was back in March, a one-on-one affair against Bernie Sanders. Biden was strong throughout, but Sanders pulled several punches, just as he did against Hillary and “those damn emails” in 2012.
Biden ought to get no such kid-glove treatment from Trump, who instead needs to knock Biden so far down that the media cries to invoke the mercy rule.
Also, imagine the disappointment for millions of Trump supporters Tuesday night if Trump isn’t Trump.
Trump is a great showman in no small part because he knows his audience.
We watched him steamroll his way through 16 Republican opponents during the GOP primaries in 2015-16, and then do the same thing to Hillary Clinton (and by proxy the entire D.C. establishment) during the general election. Trump did it by being Trump, by playing to the audience that can’t get enough of The Man Who Fights.
If that guy shows up on Tuesday night, poor old Joe might end up looking more confused than ever.
*These events are not actually debates as properly understood.