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Who has the upper hand ahead of the first presidential debate?


t is easy to see who has the most to lose from the Trump-Biden presidential debates: Joe Biden. He has a lead in national and some swing state polls, but hardly overwhelming or in any sense immune from polling errors (from “shy” Trumpites) late swing as a result of, pertinently, some disastrous debate blooper.  

It may degenerate into a battle of the gaffes. Biden and Trump both have a habit of “misspeaking” - saying sometimes bizarre things. They share a certain impatience, if not arrogance. At 77 and 74 respectively, neither man is as maybe mentally agile as once they were. It could be quite a strange encounter; with a combined age of 151 like two codgers arguing over the dominos in at the Stars and Stripes home for retired political street brawlers. Given the actuarial probabilities, the encounter between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris might be more coherent as well as relevant to the future of the United States.

On balance, though, Trump’s sheer shamefaced bombast probably gives him an advantage. Anything he finds awkward he will dismiss as a “hoax”, “fake news”. Trump is insulting and will play the man, even more than Biden. He is also the more keen on using his considerable bulk to attempt to intimidate his opponent, as he famously tried to with Hillary Clinton four years ago. Trump has also been president for four years and, putting things a little unkindly, some of the exposure to policy debates and expert briefings must have permeated his consciousness. For some years the Trump base have shown themselves endless indulgent towards the flaws in the president’s character. Whatever damage that Covid, a faltering economy and racial tensions were ever going to do to Donald Trump - and the setbacks  have been real - has pretty much been gone. He’s the underdog again, and Trump actually feels happiest as the disruptive insurgent, the challenger, there to “drain the swamp”. Trump is probably more able to land the occasional quick-witted “zinger”. Remember when Hilary Clinton goaded him in 2016 about him not paying his share of taxes? “That makes me smart” was the Trump New Yorker wisecrack. It wasn’t what Clinton was expecting, and his fans agreed with him. Biden supporters would be right to feel nervous.  

Traditionally the frontrunner, especially if they happen to be the incumbent, should be the more worried, as they usually have more to lose. They do not like putting themselves on the same level as their opponent, potentially eroding the authority the office lends them, but the “tradition”  of American presidents turning up to be riled by upstart challengers has become well established. Although the first radio and TV presidential debate was between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator Jack Kennedy in 1960, the first serving president to undergo the ordeal was President Gerry Ford, in 1976. He was beaten then by Jimmy Carter, who was in turn beaten by Ronald Reagan in 1980. In both those cases the challenger got the better of the president. Though Reagan would have won anyway, Ford’s claim that the Russians didn’t dominate Eastern Europe made him look silly.  

Reagan, in the White House, did better when he was seeking a second term in 1984, and faced a recent, former Democrat, Vice President Walter Mondale - a distant echo of today’s bout. Reagan deployed all his legendary charm to pre-empt and defuse the age issue (he was 73 at the time) by telling his 56-year old veteran opponent that “I want you to know that, also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”.  

Mostly such encounters follow the form book, but there can be surprises. The supposedly stiff Mitt Romney in 2012, for example, ran rings around usually loquacious and elegant President Barack Obama. Obama gave a surprisingly weak “phoned-in” performance and Romney almost derailed Obama’s complacent run for his second term.  

Trump’s performance against Clinton in 2016 shows why Biden supporters are righ to be wary(Getty Images)

Interestingly, it was Biden’s equally surprisingly strong showing “alpha male” against Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, that may have stopped things getting worse for the Obama-Biden. Young Ryan, babbling away about compassion, was beaten up on policy by Biden, in a sort of standing rebuke to the endemic ageism that so often pollutes our lives: “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility”.

Biden also “won” a lacklustre vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin in 2008. Consciously or not Biden spoke movingly about the death of his first wife and daughter, and raising two children alone. The Democrats will be well pleased if Biden is able to fund the same sort of freewheeling instinct for his testing into Trump’s weaknesses as he did with Palin and Ryan.  

Unfortunately Trump is better able to look after himself in unarmed combat, as he demonstrated during his ill-tempered scraps with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Their first debate was the most watched in American history - an audience of 84 million across all channels. According to the post-transmission polling, Clinton “won” the debates, but the suspicion must be that his references to “bad hombres” and “nasty women” might have helped energise his base in the key states he needed to carry. At any rate it was an unprecedentedly bitter spectacle; the pair refused to shake hands when they met at the second debate.  

On YouTube you will find plenty of entertaining clips of electrifying moments, zingers and genuinely historic oratory from 54 years of presidential and vice presidential debates. Taking in intramural-party primary hustings, mostly these compilations of greatest hits run to a few minutes. Such memories as Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of the bumptious Republican Dan Quayle in the Veep debate in 1988 deserve immortality; “ Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy...”

However if you decided to sit down and watched the entire opus of presidential debates it would take you many days, and be bored senseless for almost the entire time. Who now remembers anything at all from the three hours of Bill Clinton-Bob Dole debates in 1996? From George W Bush vs John Kerry in 2004? Or from Pence against Tim Kaine in 2016? Any event involving Trump is going to be unpredictable, and probably entertaining, if only for all the wrong reasons. But there is at least a risk that Trump v Biden 2020 might just turn into a confused and confusing festival of crossed wires, predictable name-calling and non-sequiturs. It might not be such great theatre, or even great politics. 

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