Joseph R. Biden Jr. was frustrated as he tried last year to prepare for an unwieldy debate season that stuffed as many as 11 other Democratic rivals onto a single stage. At some mock sessions, he was flanked by “Elizabeth Warren,” played by Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, and “Bernie Sanders,” portrayed by Bob Bauer, the former White House counsel, as they peppered him with progressive lines of attack. Biden lamented privately to advisers — and occasionally in public — that it was nearly impossible to debate with such a crowd. “If you had a debate with five other people, you might actually get a chance to say something,” Biden told donors in Hollywood last fall. He would deliver more forceful performances as the field narrowed, he promised.
Now, Biden will get his chance. The former vice president will debate President Trump for the first time on Tuesday, a date circled for months as one of the most consequential on the 2020 political calendar, and one of a dwindling number of chances for Trump to chip into Biden’s lead in the polls. Given Biden’s current polling edge, his advisers have been downplaying the debate’s significance even as the former vice president has plunged himself into days of intense preparations. He is rehearsing and studying his briefing books — Biden has long preferred the Arial typeface, 14 point — in a process overseen by his long-time adviser and former chief of staff, Ron Klain, who similarly ran Hillary Clinton’s debate camp.
“It is definitely one of the last things that could move the race,” said Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama and a former adviser to Biden. “The odds of it moving the race are not high. But there are not that many opportunities.” The risks for Biden are manifold. Allies and people who have coached him for past debates fret about his temper and tendency toward defensiveness when it comes to his own lengthy record. His debate showings during the 2020 primary — ultimately sufficient to win — were often marked by meandering digressions and antiquated references and were rarely, if ever, hailed as command performances.
And in Trump, he faces an asymmetrical antagonist, someone who has no qualms about deploying crudity, insults, distortions and falsehoods for political advantage. The absence of guardrails is already evident. On Sunday, Trump demanded that Biden should have to take some kind of drug test before the debate. The president, who has undertaken less formal debate prep, has mused with aides about bringing up the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter and the sexual assault accusations of Tara Reade, which have otherwise faded from the campaign.
Trump has already engaged in months of relentless and often misleading attacks on Biden’s mental acuity that have lowered the bar for the Democrat. A strong performance in the first 45 minutes could torpedo that line of attack with many viewers, while Republicans are eager to seize on any verbal missteps to push often-distorted story lines about Biden. Biden has repeatedly signalled his determination to avoid a repeat of 2016 and Trump’s ugly clashes with Mrs. Clinton, and he has second-guessed whether her response onstage to the “Access Hollywood’’ tape wound up sullying them both. He has cast her response as a missed opportunity to turn the subject back to her agenda.
“I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl with this guy,” Biden told donors at a fund-raiser earlier this month.
The debate will represent the first joint appearance of the general election for two candidates who offer starkly different visions of the country, and whose campaigns have reflected those contrasts. Trump, 74, against the advice of public health officials, has been drawing thousands of supporters for large rallies at which he and many of his supporters do not wear masks. Biden, 77, almost always masked in public, has adhered to a more limited schedule, with white circles taped to the ground during small gatherings to delineate the appropriate social distances attendees must maintain.
That contrast could be the first visual of the debate, especially if Biden emerges wearing a mask. Biden has spent the past six months employing a play-it-safe strategy — health-wise and politically — by campaigning mostly virtually from his Delaware home and making Trump’s response to a pandemic that has now cost more than 200,000 lives the focal point of the election. His advisers want the debate — and the race itself — to be a referendum on Trump’s stewardship of the health crisis, even as Trump’s rush to fill a Supreme Court vacancy has created a new flash point. “The Biden campaign wants a campaign that only includes Donald Trump,” said Brad Todd, a veteran Republican strategist. “The Trump campaign wants Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden. And on debate night, the Trump campaign is going to get what it wants.”
Still, Biden’s team has provided talking points to surrogates outlining their belief that little can occur onstage that will fundamentally change the shape of the race. David Axelrod, the former chief strategist to Obama, who attended some of Biden’s vice-presidential debate preparations, said that going up against Trump “is not like preparing for a normal debate.”
“How do you deal with serial lying?” Axelrod said. “How do you deal with the provocations. He can be exasperating. How much do you want to tangle with him on every point? How do you keep from going down rabbit holes that don’t really lead anywhere?” Biden’s advisers do not hope to muzzle his indignation entirely, campaign officials said — but want to ensure that any temper-flashing moments are channelled in a productive direction: anger about the loss of life during the pandemic, Trump’s sometimes indifference to public health guidelines and perhaps especially the president’s comments, as reported by The Atlantic, that American soldiers who died in war were “suckers” and “losers.”
Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close Biden ally who has offered “broad framing input” about the debate, said he had warned against “being surprised about the attacks and the spectacle.” Biden has settled on a favourite pre-debate phrase about the race, calling it a contest between his hometown, Scranton, and Park Avenue, part of his effort to connect with working Americans, especially in the Industrial Midwest. Senator Coons said Biden had readied some “sharp rejoinders” to highlight “what’s at stake.”
Biden’s advisers have signalled that the former vice president does not plan to spend most of his time fact-checking Trump, and hopes the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, fills that breach. “If you take on that role, you seem small,” Carney said. The 90-minute debate will be divided into six segments, selected by Wallace: the pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court, the “integrity of the election,” the “Trump and Biden records” and “race and violence in our cities.”
Goldmacher and Glueck are national political reporters with NYT©2020
The New York Times