Here We Go Again: Debates Start Tuesday

September 24, 2020

On Tuesday night, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will arrive on the health-education campus of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic to begin the first presidential debate of the general election. This “Clash in Cleveland” will have its own tempo and tone, but the 36 such debates since 1960 have elements in common.

Incumbents often do badly in the first debate, perhaps because after being president for four years, they wonder why they’re even sharing the stage with a challenger. Or maybe many challengers, with fewer demands on their time, come better prepared and psyched up.

Mitt Romney was widely thought to have manhandled President Barack Obama in 2012’s opening bout. President Ronald Reagan did so poorly in the first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale that news reports questioned whether, at 73, he was too old. Reagan answered that in the next debate with a joke: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” (Mr. Mondale was 56.) Game, set, match.

Yet debates are rarely dispositive. It’s the unusual encounter—think the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960—that bends the contest in a new direction. Sen. John F. Kennedy trailed going into that debate but won among people who watched on television, as Vice President Richard Nixon perspired with no makeup and a 5 o’clock shadow. JFK came across as elegant and in command. He emerged with a durable polling bump and went on to win narrowly.

Usually, though, debates tend to harden trends already present in the race. Take the second 1988 debate, when CNN’s Bernie Shaw asked Michael Dukakis, “If Kitty Dukakis, were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Historian John Pitney characterized Mr. Dukakis’s “robotic response”—“No, I don’t, Bernard”—as sounding “as if he were talking about Swedish land-use planning.” But this didn’t change the race’s trajectory. Mr. Dukakis had already fallen behind in August amid charges that he was too far left; the debate continued his slide.

Small gestures and actions are magnified by the moment. Al Gore’s sighing and eye-rolling while George W. Bush was speaking in the first debate of 2000, and Mr. Bush’s head nod in the third debate when Mr. Gore tried intimidating him by invading his space, left the impression that Mr. Gore was the insufferable, smarty-pants high-school debater every classmate detested. Appearing likable is key to winning the night.

Such moments can inform as well as obscure. The kerfuffle over President Gerald Ford’s 1976 denial that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe took days to walk back, chewing up time that could have been devoted to better issues for Ford.

Expectations also matter. Each camp should lower them for its candidate and raise them for its opponent. That’s why Mr. Trump’s comments on Mr. Biden’s incoherence have been striking and why the Trump campaign recently shifted gears. Reports have surfaced of Mr. Trump privately and his team publicly reflecting on Mr. Biden’s long history of Senate and vice presidential debates, and his seasoning in this year’s dozen primary debates in which he held his own, even though Sen. Bernie Sanders held back in the final mano-a-mano contest because the race was over. That won’t be the case Tuesday, but Mr. Trump should be careful not to go over the top with personal attacks.

There will probably be memorable lines tagging an opponent’s weakness. Every candidate comes armed with some. They must be delivered naturally but are rarely as effective as Reagan’s “There you go again” retort to Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Most important for debaters is to remember the rationale for their candidacy, their theory of the case. Mr. Biden’s is simple: This election is a referendum on Mr. Trump’s bungled coronavirus response, and Mr. Biden is a normal Democrat who can be trusted to improve health care and lower drug costs.

For his part, Mr. Trump must use the debates to make this a choice election. This requires him to remind voters what he’s done and explain what he’ll do that’s new in a second term, and then contrast both with Mr. Biden’s agenda.

Covid-19 has denied us the months of appearances and news conferences that reveal the candidates’ personalities, values and abilities. For good or ill, voters know Mr. Trump; they don’t possess anywhere near the same information about Mr. Biden. That leaves him with more to gain and more to lose in Cleveland.


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