Can Joe Biden defang Donald Trump on the debate stage? And does it even matter?

Trump did poorly against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 debates — and now he's running on a record of total failure

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 28, 2020 9:17AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

On Sunday evening, the New York Times published a blockbuster story based on the tax returns that Donald Trump has gone all the way to the Supreme Court to keep hidden. He didn't want Congress to see it, he didn't want the Manhattan district attorney to see it and he didn't want us to see it — and now we know why. He is deeply in debt and has paid virtually no federal income taxes for the last 15 years. Last year he paid $750. There are no zeros missing from that sentence.

It's surely coincidental that this big story hit just two days before the next big event of the presidential campaign: Trump's first debate with Joe Biden on Tuesday night. but you may recall this exchange in the debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016:

It's a stark reminder of just how successful Trump has been at keeping this information away from the public.

It will be interesting to see how Biden handles all this in the first debate in Cleveland, or whether it will make any difference one way or the other. Trump likes to say that he won the general election debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, and there even seems to be some conventional wisdom in the press that he's right, but it couldn't be further from truth.

Gallup polls after all three debates in 2016 made clear that Clinton cleaned his clock as far as the public was concerned. She won by 34 points in the first debate, 18 points in the second and 29 points in the third. Viewers preferred her positions on all the issues including the deficit, Social Security, Russia, foreign crises, the economy, the Supreme Court, immigration and overall fitness to be president. (In fact, 60% of those polled even found her to be more likable!) And 83 percent disagreed with Trump's refusal to agree to abide by the results of the election, including 77 percent of Republicans. Imagine that.

But let's not forget that he vanquished 17 more or less qualified opponents in the Republican primaries with his wild and unpredictable debate antics. The country wasn't used to his insults and crude behavior at that point so perhaps it all seemed like fun and games. But he had all those men (and one woman) on their heels from the very beginning.

They tried everything. They went after his businesses, they demeaned his knowledge and intellect, they tried to disarm him with insults and humor, they tried to ignore him and talk past him. None of it worked. He wasn't debating, he was performing, and it was like trying to play chess with someone who is just moving the pieces randomly on the board.

Clinton did well against him in spite of that, but she had to put up with some outlandish antics. He stalked her all over the stage like the Incredible Hulk, called her "the devil" and said if he were president she'd be in jail — all to her face. She gamely moved past it and people believed she won the debates. But will that work for Joe Biden?

Biden's campaign spokesperson Kate Bedingfield appeared on CNN on Sunday and said he was planning to talk about all the great things he will do for the country, indicating that he is planning to try to ignore Donald Trump. Good luck with that. According to Jonathan Swan at Axios, Trump's strategy, to the extent he has one, is to show the country that he's a "tough guy." So he's been trying out attack lines at his COVID-19 super-spreader rallies "seeing what ignites his crowds or falls flat."

One of his favorites is obviously the idea that Biden is on drugs:

This actually qualifies as a Trump greatest hit at this point. In October of 2016 he said the same thing about Clinton.

Many observers have noted that his depictions of Biden and Clinton as doddering invalids would seem to be counterproductive, setting the bar so low that they end up looking great. That's why Trump uses this drug charge — yes, they are doddering invalids, which is why they need all those drugs! Trump "explained" all this at his rally in North Carolina last week:

According to Swan, Trump's people are worried that he is overconfident, hasn't prepared, doesn't know anything about policy or what he wants to do in a second term, will attack the moderator and downplay the pandemic. They are clearly correct to be concerned, although apparently Trump and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been working with some flash cards, so it's all under control.

Biden's people are worried that he'll commit some gaffe, lose his temper, talk too much or take the bait from Trump, all of which are reasonable worries. He's not what you'd call a disciplined, precise speaker and Donald Trump can get under anyone's skin.

There is a lot of advice floating around. Philippe Reines, who played Trump in the mock debates with Clinton, suggested in a Washington Post op-ed that Biden "preempt" the president by telegraphing for the audience what they're about to hear:

C'mon, Mr. President. Everyone knows that whatever you call fake is real. Whatever you call a lie is the truth. Whatever you accuse others of doing is what you've done. And whatever you make fun of me for saying by accident only serves to deflect from what you say on purpose.

Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College wrote in the New York Times last week that Trump is best disarmed with humor and ridicule, suggesting that his fragile self-esteem can't take it. I can't help but recall Sen. Marco Rubio's sad attempts at doing that during a Republican primary debate in 2016 and wonder if that's really a good idea. On the other hand, Rubio isn't exactly a natural comedian, while Biden got off one of the best debate zingers of all time back in 2008 when he accused then-GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani of starting every sentence with "a noun, a verb and 9/11." (Maybe Giuliani's bizarre obsession with Biden has less to do with loyalty to Trump than with his own desire for revenge?)

The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that moderators will not be doing any fact-checking, so Biden will have to decide whether to spend his time doing that or try to control the debate on his own terms. It occurred to me over the weekend, as I watched the two men closely, that while Trump can accurately be described as that arrogant blowhard at the end of the bar who forces you to move to a table to get away from him, Joe Biden is the fellow at the other end of the bar who's buying everyone drinks and telling funny stories. It could be that he's just the kind of guy who knows how to handle Donald Trump. We'll find out on Tuesday night. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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