It’s true that once in a while, a phrase is uttered in a presidential debate that can have a dramatic effect on the audience in the hall and at home. But rarely does that line become the catalyst that ends up winning the election.
Kennedy looked and sounded a whole lot cooler than Nixon in the first-ever nationally televised debate. It helped. The outsize gap in their performances — in a new medium — had an effect on the race, and JFK eked it out.
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan, after being shushed in a primary debate in Nashua New Hampshire, grabbed the mic and exclaimed, “Mr. Green, I am paying for this microphone!” He showed voters a new side of him and it became a legendary debate line.
There are plenty of pseudo-dramatic moments in televised presidential debates that do capture our attention, even our memories, but few actually decide the election.
In Trump V. Biden, there are fewer undecided voters than there have been in decades. If people don’t know who these two men are by now, they haven’t been paying much attention or they just don’t care.
We know that Trump will come out with his usual surface-level confidence. He will lie faster than Biden or the fact-checkers can possibly keep pace. He will say ridiculous things, scapegoat others for mistakes, and counterpunch Biden in the nose every chance he gets. Par for his Turnberry Golf Course.
Biden, on the other hand, will make far fewer egregious mistakes. He’ll screw up some wording here and there. Get a little too wishy-washy, especially when he drops his voice like a Pastor and elongates the answer. And some of his soliloquies will move in many directions before he finishes, sort of, by saying, “Sorry for goin’ so long, but, well, I better stop.”
In other words, both Trump and Biden will say things tonight that will make their opponents cringe — not to mention some of their own supporters.
For the man who’s tried to corner the market on the word “empathetic,” Biden will likely have at least one good moment of genuine compassion for someone introduced in a question.
For the man who said, “He could fix it alone,” he’ll probably have some good moment when his strength looks real and not concocted for effect. Any president can point to one good thing over four years.
They’ll banter back and forth, each winning points here and there.
The bar for Biden has been set so low that it would be pretty surprising if he didn’t turn in at least a solid debate performance. The Vice President is not new to this.
Trump won’t fall over, either. When you’re a man who concedes nothing and is embarrassed by nothing, all you have to do is get through it. Keep those MAGA base fists pumping in the air.
So will all the banter over issues and character and the pandemic matter very much? I suspect not. The lines have been drawn. The ring is ready and the fighters have long track records at trying to brand who they are to the nation: Scranton Joe and Winning Trump.
There is, however, a strategy available to one of the candidates in this debate that could make the biggest difference of all down the stretch of this election campaign.
Joe Biden is going to have his first chance — side-by-side with the biggest voice in America — to drive home a message about how this country must conduct a fair election.
I’ll be watching the debate tonight. But I won’t be watching for the “oooh” or “ahhhh” moments when one of them lands a right cross against the other. There’s fun in that, but with the stakes this high, big deal. I can always click over to ESPN3 or the Comedy Channel.
No, what I’m looking for is at least three succinct paragraphs from Joe Biden that prepare America for the weeks or months it may take to fairly count every ballot that’s been cast.
Biden needs to briefly explain to ALL AMERICANS that due to a deadly pandemic, we do, in fact, have more mail-in ballots this year to count after Election Day and that’ll take a little longer.
He needs to briefly explain that secretaries of state across the country have been diligently been preparing for this event and will be confidently counting and verifying accurate results. When errors do occur, they will be corrected as they have been in elections throughout our history.
He must give shout-outs to non-partisan efforts like VoteSafe, Vote.Org and PlanYourVote so that all voters know how to participate in a secure election and track their ballots.
One more thing that Joe Biden needs to do in conveying this set of election priorities: borrow a page from Donald Trump’s Book. The Vice President needs to convey these priorities in nugget-size sound bites — and repeat them over and over again.
Donald Trump sounds like a 4th-grader when he speaks because he drills the same words and phrases into people’s heads several times in less than half a minute. But that’s how he ensures you remember what he says.
Joe Biden talks all over the place, especially when given the time. Tonight, he needs to calmly explain — in at least three different ways — why we need to wait until all votes are counted. That the operational dynamics of ballot processing in this election are a bit different due to the strain of a health pandemic — but that 230 years of our history demand that we accurately distill the will of the people.
Bush v. Gore took some time to count and then to adjudicate in legal forums that lead all the way up to the Supreme Court. We did it. We had a peaceful transference of power; one of the bedrocks of our system. We can do it again. We must do it again.
Be disciplined, Mr. Vice President. You’re leading by a few miles and a victory is well within reach. Don’t let Trump start lapping you on the track because you didn’t remind enough Americans that both drivers must abide by the rules.