Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    This week’s presidential debate has the makings of history

    The first debate of the 2024 presidential race is an equal opportunity for disaster for both candidates.

    Thursday’s faceoff between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden could be a seismic moment. A wobble or two by Trump or Biden is likely. Wobbling is one thing. In this case, the ground may move under their feet.

    This political junkie knows this event, to be aired on CNN, has the makings of history. History has been a friend to the presidential debates of the past. Richard Nixon was sweaty in 1960; in 1976, Gerald Ford claimed that Communist-led Poland was not under Soviet domination; and Trump loomed and hovered over Hillary Clinton on the stage in 2016. Those moments were American political theater, par excellence.

    Given the checkered recent history of debates, the heads at CNN have toiled mightily to keep this one civil and substantive. The network is planning for tough moderators and no studio audience, and if a contestant blows through time limits, his microphone will be turned off.

    Still, there remains a good chance that one of the candidates could implode, maybe even both.

    There’s a lot on the line. Last Friday, the latest average of national presidential polls tracked by FiveThirtyEight placed Biden and Trump neck and neck.

    Trump versus Biden is a rematch ensconced in a grudge. Trump has never acknowledged that he lost the popular and electoral votes to Biden. He will not admit that he was justly convicted on 34 felony counts in a court of law. Why? When that question comes his way, how can Trump wrap that reality around a cogent reply?

    Some say they expect Trump to punk out. “If I was a gambler — and I am a gambler — I’d take even money that Trump doesn’t show up,” Jim Carville declared last week on MSNBC.

    “I wouldn’t be shocked, but I certainly would not be surprised,” added the former presidential adviser and Democratic strategist. “If you gave me even money, I’d say he’s a no-show. He’ll just get up that morning and say, ‘I’m just not going to do it.'”

    If so, it would be reminiscent of Trump’s recent trial, in which Trump claimed he was eager to testify in his own defense against charges that he falsified business records to cover up a sex scandal that could have deep-sixed his 2016 presidential campaign. But when Trump had the chance to take the stand, he demurred. It’s reminiscent of 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said he voted for $87 billion in funding for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — before he voted against it.

    Trump must also grapple with his lack of policy chops. That’s never been a problem for his avid supporters, but that deficiency could take on an outsize importance when many voters will be looking for substance. Details have never been Trump’s strong suit, but he will need to command them on the debate stage.

    The facts can make even a strong man appear supercilious. Trump enjoys a robust demeanor, which works well on the stump, but in this case, quick thinking is advantage one.

    For Biden, this debate is critical. If Trump rattles Biden, he may falter. Watch for stammering, verbal slips or brain freezes, a la Mitch McConnell. If Biden does not show up strong, he may not make it past the Democratic convention.

    At 81, Joltin’ Joe Biden ain’t jolting anymore. Trump has eagerly pointed that out, countless times.

    Biden is not going to win any awards for fancy footwork at the lectern. But he will need to be steady-as-he-goes Joe. Be feisty, be aggressive and duck Trump’s haymakers.

    Earlier this year, Democrats were out of their minds with worry ahead of the State of the Union address in February. Biden delivered a strong, confident and powerful speech, and now his allies are pointing to that as a model for the debate performance. If the president can duplicate that performance, he has a good chance to end the debate on his feet. At the debate, however, there will be no teleprompter, no script and no applause from the partisans in the audience.

    Trump will go to great lengths to rattle his opponent. Trump will be Smokin’ Joe Frazier coming after Muhammad Ali.

    Can you imagine Biden floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee?

    Then again, the whole affair might be a dud. That would be a good thing for both. No gain, no pain.


    Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.