Politics as compelling theatre

Presidential debates rarely sway voters, but Biden-Trump will make for an entertaining, if vicious, spectacle

Michael TaubeThe first U.S. presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be held this evening. Two more debates are scheduled on Oct. 15 and 22.

Here are some thoughts on what can we expect to happen tonight:

Presidential debates, like any leaders’ debates, lack spontaneity and leave almost nothing to chance. Scripts are created well in advance. Political strategies are mapped out to ensure candidates are fully prepared for the good, bad and ugly.

Mock debates with seasoned veterans and/or staff members frequently occur. Catchy phrases and retorts are crafted to either take full advantage of certain situations or help a candidate get out of a potential pitfall.

There could be a memorable line or two.

Maybe not on the level of either Ronald Reagan’s sparkling “There you go again,” against Jimmy Carter in their only presidential debate in 1980; or Reagan’s whimsical “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,” during the second presidential debate against Walter Mondale in 1984.

It’s doubtful anything like Lloyd Bentsen’s swatting of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate – “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” – will make an appearance, either.

Perhaps something along the lines of John F. Kennedy’s powerful statement – “We can no longer afford to be second best. I want people all over the world to look to the United States again, to feel that we’re on the move, to feel that our high noon is in the future.” – in facing off against Richard Nixon in 1960 will show up. Positive statements often have a powerful impact with voters.

As long as Biden and Trump don’t trip up like Gerald Ford did against Carter in 1976 – “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” – or Ross Perot’s vice-presidential running mate, Admiral James Stockdale – “Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician.” – they should be okay.

Oh, and no “binders full of women.” That’s a moment Mitt Romney would have loved to erase during his second presidential debate in 2012 against Barack Obama.

What about policy?

Trump needs to emphasize some successes from his first presidential term. He’ll try to pivot to the economy (pre-COVID-19) and foreign policy. He’ll find ways to throw in the U.S. Supreme Court/judicial integrity, making America’s streets and communities safer from left-wing radicals and activists, border security and building a wall with Mexico, fair trade deals and so on.

Biden will attempt to promote an alternative political and economic vision to Trump’s. He’ll focus on government spending, economic growth, international relations and the pandemic. He may throw out an entirely new policy proposal during one of the three debates to see if it sticks with voters and adjust it if some push-back occurs.

But while there will be some policy discussion, it will be fairly limited.

Recent presidential debates have focused more on catchy slogans, buzzwords, short clips and fishing expeditions for ‘gotcha’ moments. The days of three-hour debate marathons that famously occurred between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on seven occasions during the 1858 Illinois Senate race are long since over. Attention spans are shorter and quips of 20 to 30 seconds are more effective in modern society.

This is a huge advantage for Trump. He’s mastered the technique of capturing the audience’s imagination with short, pithy statements that are easy to remember. For instance, the quirky nicknames for some of his political opponents, like “Little” Marco Rubio, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, “Crazy” Nancy Pelosi, “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un and “Sleepy” Joe Biden are downright nasty – but effective because you can’t forget them.

As an old-school, traditional politician, Biden tends to shy away from this strategy and behaviour in public. Should he embrace it for the remainder of this presidential campaign?

Probably but it’s not in his nature.

Instead, there will be plenty of entertaining theatre.

Biden and Trump have been chomping at the bit for this opportunity. In particular, Trump wants to show he can beat Biden in a debate format – and outlast him. If he’s successful in what will undoubtedly turn out to be a negative, vicious tussle, it will be to his political advantage.

If Biden can defy expectations and stay toe-to-toe with Trump, that will put comments about his fragility, oratorical skills and regular bouts of stumbling at the microphone partially to rest.

Presidential debates rarely sway voters to switch allegiances or shift the undecided vote in one direction. Could this be one of those unusual examples?

We’ll know shortly.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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Presidential debate

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