The first of the presidential debates is scheduled for late next month. If all goes according to plan, there will be up to 3 debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and an additional debate between Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate. Trump and Biden each hope to use the debates to his advantage, but each also runs the risk of making a major mistake that could doom his candidacy—Trump by attacking Biden’s mental fitness for the presidency; Biden by choosing to avoid the debates altogether.
One of Trump’s major campaign themes is that Joe Biden, at 78, is too old and mentally befuddled to be president. Frequently cited, for example, is Joe Biden’s confusion over both the name and the contents of the Declaration of Independence, to cite just one of the many gaffes Biden has committed, and which have been stored on tape and film for future use against him.
But Biden can neutralize Trump’s attacks simply by stringing together enough coherent sentences to show he is not the doddering idiot Trump says he is. If he exceeds the low public expectations Trump is trying to create, he can credibly claim he won the debates.
And there’s ample precedent for this: In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy, while debating Richard Nixon, was able to show enough poise and knowledge to convince the public he was not the ignorant and inexperienced candidate Nixon said he was. And Ronald Reagan used folksy good humor—“There you go again!”– in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter to convince the viewing public he was not the dangerous bomb-throwing fanatic Carter said he was.
So what should Trump really do? He should stop attacking Biden’s mental acuity lest he make it too easy for Biden to exceed the public expectations Trump is so unwisely lowering. Rather, he should campaign against Biden’s proposals for tax hikes, health insurance, the environment, and other big-ticket items. The more expensive Trump can show Biden’s proposals to be, the less likely the public will support them, and the more likely Trump will win more support as the less fiscally irresponsible of the candidates. Moreover, should Trump develop and demonstrate the self-discipline to intelligently critique Biden’s policy proposals, he may surprise and win over those who are otherwise convinced he’s too ignorant and intellectually lazy to merit a second term.
And what should Biden do? First and foremost, he needs to ignore the advice of his liberal media supporters, such as The New York Times and The New Republic, and actually show up for the debates. His media allies say that presidential debates emphasize style over substance and change few minds anyway—claims that may be the subject of a future column. But despite the claims made by the media, one cannot help but wonder whether Biden’s supporters suspect Trump may really be right about him and therefore want to spare him from the embarrassment they think Trump has planned for him. However, a presidential candidate can afford to skip debates only if he is so far ahead in the polls that his opponent has no chance of catching up with him other than through stellar debate performances. Thus Johnson in 1964, and Nixon in 1968 and 1972, refused to debate their respective opponents and still won their elections. But while Biden currently leads Trump in the polls, he is not so far ahead that he can enjoy the luxury of skipping the debates. The election is still close enough, and there are still enough undecided voters who remain to be persuaded one way or the other, to justify debate participation.
As it is, showing up to debate Trump is Biden’s best chance to show he is still mentally fit to be president. Should he succeed, he’ll rob Trump of one of his most potent arguments. Furthermore, debating Trump on the same stage and at the same time may be the best way to defend his policy proposals against whatever attacks Trump makes. On the other hand, ducking debates will leave himself far more open to whatever charges Trump makes concerning the fitness of either his mind or his policies.
The debates, if they’re held, will afford each candidate the opportunity to help or hurt his campaign. In a future column, should the debates proceed, I may summarize additional lessons students of past presidential debates have inferred from them. In the meantime, let the debates proceed.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.