Presidential debates mark the moment an election shifts from horse race to gladiatorial combat, with Americans watching along from our comfy couchside coliseums. Considering the soft quarantine much of the country is currently under, more Americans may be watching than usual.
Here’s what they might see.
According to New York Times reporters, “Trump folks expect him to try to make Biden lose his temper by talking about his children.” And according to Biden’s former press secretary, Jay Carney, when Donald Trump inevitably tries to throw the former VP off his game, “Biden will have to resist the urge to take the bait . . . .”
This is terrible advice, and Biden unfortunately seems in danger of heeding it.
As the New York Times reports:
“Mr. Biden has been pretty clear that he believes that Hillary Clinton erred four years ago in her debates with Mr. Trump by getting into a back-and-forth argument about character. “She did what every other candidate probably would have done,” Mr. Biden said in January. The resulting debate was an ugly spectacle and, he said, “it all went down the drain.” Mr. Biden wants to avoid that — and he has been stress-tested by advisers not to respond to Mr. Trump’s obvious provocations if they are not central to his own message. “I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl,” Mr. Biden said this month.”
But what does taking or not taking the bait even mean? Obviously, Biden shouldn’t lose his temper with a Howard Dean scream—God forbid, a scream!—but he should indeed show a little anger. What more appropriate response could there be to the circumstances of 2020 America, and the man who is arguably their architect, than anger? Hell, Biden lost his temper at voters while on the campaign trail—he might as well direct some of that hostility where it most belongs. If “taking the bait” means raising his voice and lobbing insults, well, that’s certainly preferable to a revival of “When they go low, you go high.”
When Hillary Clinton quoted Michelle Obama’s famous refrain during the second debate in 2016, the crowd went nuts. In 2016, rising above the ugliness of politics in the name of honor and dignity was in high fashion. Donald Trump, however, broke with the crowd on this one, and subtly shook his head after Clinton’s quotation.
As much as it pains me to say this in any context: Trump was right.
What has going high ever accomplished against someone like Donald Trump, who knows no bottom he can’t burrow even further beneath? Will behaving with more dignity prove Biden is the better person? Make no mistake: Biden has many questionable words and deeds in his past that he needs to answer for, but one thing he hasn’t done is plunge the country into authoritarianism (and maybe proto-fascism) while allowing a pandemic to kill over 200,000 people and fanning the flames of a race war.
That fact will not budge, whether Biden gets his hands dirty in the debates or not.
In fact, Clinton proved the efficacy of antagonism during the 2016 debates, which, despite what Biden says, she handily won. At the time, people thought the best thing Clinton did was needle Trump into losing his temper, but it turned out that Trump, for whatever reason, is permitted by his supporters to have a temper. Imagine that.
What has been somewhat memory-holed about those debates is that Clinton landed a lot of blows when she went on the offense. “Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that’s all to his benefit,” Clinton said toward the top of the first debate. “He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there.”
Most people only remember this moment, however, as the warmup for Clinton’s cringey coining of Trump’s proposed fiscal policies as “trumped up, trickle-down” economics. Where she went most wrong in the debates, in my estimation, was with canned lines like those that made people’s eyes roll, and letting a few too many of Trump’s zingers and deflections go unanswered or called out. Her attacks on his character, though, were solid.
Judging from Biden’s late attempts to make fetch happen with Scranton versus Park Avenue, he is more in danger of sounding too rehearsed than of going on the attack. But if he wants to play it safe to court the undecideds, Biden isn’t going to win over anyone by not being aggressive enough against Donald Effing Trump.
Trump’s whole thing is being pugilistic with his opponents. That’s why trolls love him. His debate style involves constant interruptions, denying every accusation, admitting no wrongdoing, and punching back with vicious accusations and impossible promises so wild, he later has to claim he was joking. Sentient muppet Charlie Kirk recently stated that his favorite part of the 2016 debates was when Trump responded to Clinton’s description of life under a hypothetical Trump presidency with: “You would be in jail.” Authoritarian threats tossed off with the air of a schoolyard taunt are but one tool in Trump’s a**hole tool kit.
You can’t kill that with kindness.
Fortunately, Biden has way more ammunition to fight back than Clinton did, after four years of seeing how a hypothetical Trump presidency fared in real life. It’s time to go for the jugular.
I’m not advocating that Biden be an even bigger jerk than Trump. (If such a feat is possible.) When John Kerry tried to fight at George W. Bush’s level in 2004, he brought up how Dick Cheney’s anti-LGBTQ policies didn’t square with having a daughter who identifies as a lesbian—and managed the unlikely feat of making Dick Cheney look sympathetic. (Admittedly, there’s little chance of that happening here.) When Trump interrupts or needles Biden during their imminent debates, though, Trump will have any number of vulnerabilities that Biden can spin the debate toward.
Some topics Biden will surely touch on:
- Trump’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and his admission to Bob Woodward of intentionally misleading the public about its danger.
- How Trump keeps playing footsie with QAnon and white nationalists and refuses to disavow Kyle Rittenhouse.
- The fact that Trump is only the third president in American history to be impeached.
- The New York Times‘ recent tax bombshell and Trump’s potential fraud and evasion. (Unlike Hillary Clinton, and much to Charlie Kirk’s chagrin, if Trump loses this election, he may actually be open to charges that could send him to jail.)
Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities for Biden to get personal.
If Trump asks why Biden won’t support “pro-family” Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Biden would do well to mention that, while Trump claims to champion family values, he has five kids from three women and cheated on his current wife with a porn star—while she was at home with their newborn child—whom he later bribed to keep quiet while he was courting the evangelical vote. Something like that might make an impression on the undecideds.
When Trump brings up Biden’s son, Hunter, and his dealings with Ukraine, which he definitely plans to do, Biden needs to hit back by asking why Trump paid his daughter Ivanka an exorbitant consultant fee that he could write off on his taxes. Also, why she is asking China for trademarks for her brand while in the employ of the White House, or even working there at all.
When it comes to Trump’s other major lines of attack—that Biden is “senile” or is prone to making gaffes or that he has incurred questions about his behavior with women—well, the best he can do is find a funny way to point out that this is like the pot calling the kettle a pot, and rip Trump to shreds over his own issues on these topics.
In the end, Biden has nothing to lose from going on the offensive and getting dirty. Trump and his most ardent supporters will claim victory no matter what. Hopefully, all the advance reporting about Biden’s genteel debate strategy turns out just to be a smoke screen.
After all, one of Donald Trump’s hit lines from the 2016 debates, which I will again reluctantly concede the wisdom of, was that one shouldn’t telegraph any moves to the enemy.