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Once upon a time, back when a global pandemic didn’t ground planes, derail responsible political rallies and force presidential candidates to build television studios in their rec rooms, we gathered every four years in familiar fieldhouses on college campuses to watch the White House contenders match wits and canned jabs. We watched the sparring together as a political press corps, then entertained and ultimately ignored campaign operatives who protested that the quotes we were using weren’t actually said.
It was a quaint time, in retrospect, of performance art — and one I covet as the first presidential debate of 2020 is about to start in my childhood backyard of Cleveland.
We are about to witness the first head-to-head of President Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden. In the middle of a pandemic, the contrast is likely to be striking. In the hours before showtime, Biden is sitting with his heir’s share of advisers helping him fine-tune his answers. Trump is watching Twitter and his rally crowds to see what attack lines resonate. As my TIME colleague Molly Ball smartly notes: “After four unrelenting years, Trump will find it difficult to change anyone’s preconceived opinion of him.”
Biden, on the other hand, has a chance to surprise everyone.
It was eight years ago when I rolled onto the serene campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky., to watch Biden match jabs with his Republican counterpart, then-Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, at the 2012 V.P. debate. Over the course of the afternoon, I pulled aside Biden’s coterie of advisers to hear them set the stage. I had anticipated aggressive lowering of expectations, based on his somewhat-cuffed performance in 2008 against Sarah Palin, the half-term Governor of Alaska whom John McCain selected as his running mate. But in 2012, Biden’s team was happy to have the bar raised. The Biden team wanted everyone to know that the V.P. was ready for this — so much so that Dr. Jill Biden was hopping on her own jet to the campus that evening to watch the show after she wrapped up her day teaching college students in northern Virginia.
Biden delivered. He was as sharp as I’ve ever seen him. He understood the stakes, especially after Obama bombed his own first debate against Mitt Romney. As I sat in the back balcony of the debate hall as a pool reporter, I couldn’t help but marvel at the mismatch taking shape. Biden was loose and mostly in command of the facts. Ryan was on his heels. The Irish poet in Biden’s DNA seemed impossible to contain. And in the post-debate spin sessions, Biden’s team was buoyant. As the promotional poster advertised, it was “The Thrill in the ‘Ville.”
Biden, when he’s on, is about as natural as any pol on those stages. Groomed for 36 years in the Senate hearing rooms and another eight as Vice President, he gets what needs to happen on live TV. The team around him is a set of pros who trust each other and can cajole Biden to be his best self. To watch him twirl in his chair on stage eight years ago in Kentucky was to enjoy a masterclass in political performance art. He leaned back and chuckled when Ryan struggled to match the carefully worded attacks. And he seemed downright jolly when going for the Republican ticket’s jugular.
The problem, at least for much of the primary, has been that the Danville version of Biden has yet to show up. He was prepared, but didn’t seem to relish the idea of savaging fellow Democrats, especially those who may shape his political party over the next half-century. He wanted to talk about ideas, not opp-files. And he would often balk when aides brought to him sure-fire ways to end others’ candidacies, such as Beto O’Rourke’s unworkable immigration plans or Bernie Sanders’ effort to abolish private insurance. Biden legitimately liked most of his primary rivals, as evidenced by his choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, a woman who landed the cleanest assault on Biden’s character as any and still got the call. But the people watching Biden for the first time in the primary debates didn’t quite get what makes Biden, well, Biden.
Presidential debates are the apex of political theater. No one is judged as a successful President because he or she succeeds in a 90-minute version of Meet The Press. If ever a presidential library spends more than a video clip of any exchange on a presidential debate stage, it’s probably not for a good reason. It’s a high-wire act with nothing but downside. What it takes to win a debate bears zero resemblance to the skills it takes to be President, and yet is an essential part of the election for many American voters. Turnout this year, when the nation has been in upheaval for months, is expected to reach once-a-century highs.
Biden’s low-key performance this year, and in previous, less-watched V.P. debates, may end up working to his advantage, especially if Trump believes his own hype. Trump seems determined to cast Biden as a meandering fool who doesn’t know what day of the week it is. If Biden takes the stage in Cleveland with clear eyes and a fighter’s resolve, no number of pre-canned attacks can derail him. Just ask Paul Ryan about how it’s almost impossible to blunt the power of Malarkey.
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