Don’t expect fireworks from the first presidential debate, Joe Biden will be out to make it as unremarkable as possible
Set the bar low for the first debate. It’s not in the Democrats’ interest to get involved in a war of words with Trump, and in Biden they have a man they can trust not to rise to the president’s bait.
For the last three and a half years, millions of people around the globe have entered into intense, hypothetical one-on-ones with President Donald Trump. They have squared off, in their own head, in imagined debates in which lists of grievances, recriminations and accusations have been fired off with extraordinary precision and repetition.
They have observed the somewhat dim and constrained White House press corps fail to land any clinching rhetorical blows, have sat through one-on-one interviews in which the president has bloviated and talked over his hosts, and have endured inescapably vulgar and grammatically weak Tweets. And now there are swarming multitudes who wonder how simultaneously manic and cathartic it would be to stand at a podium opposite the Commander-in-Chief, lobbing verbal bombs for 90 minutes.
There is something of a desolate feeling, then, knowing that the one individual who gets this actual opportunity is Joe Biden. For all his admirable qualities, Biden isn’t exactly able to recite vast tracts of criticisms, itemize each infuriating scandal, set linguistic traps like a prosecutor, deliver witty epigrammatic takedowns or generally exasperate his opponent.
It is extremely unlikely that the president will get anything remotely close to the kind of comeuppance millions are dreaming of. Nor is it likely that the intense incredulity of an accrued four years will find expression in the often hokey charm and ponderous emphases of Biden. We will never know what a consummate roasting would have looked like.
Perhaps it’s for the best, because Biden is also one of the only people outside of Trump’s base who will be able to maintain his composure on stage for 90 minutes. As a man who is naturally affable, of strong faith and has been to the depths of despair in his personal life, he is probably the ideal person to pit against Trump and not end up glowing and leering with disdain after five minutes. He is there to provide an alternative to aggressive posturing, impulsiveness and personal attacks. He is there to epitomize civility and comity, and the potential for renewal of public life.
Biden will not be afraid to engage and to fight, but not in the sense of being dragged into the gutter; more in the sense of a sleeves-to-the-elbows, Queensbury rules brawl which, whilst not as satisfying, is, ultimately, appropriate.
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He will cringe and smile and shake his head at the most preposterous assertions, but rein in the kind of instincts that will have millions of viewers berating the TV and squirming in their chair as if watching a controversial football final.
As a consequence, the debates will ultimately be unsatisfying as spectacles, but will get the job done for Biden. Given the dynamic of the race, an underwhelming series of debates, without any significant moments, is close to the ideal situation. Biden will be generally happy to maintain the status quo, and so will the Democrats.
The chief talking point hanging over the debates seems to be Biden’s propensity for gaffes, and whether this could confirm the Republicans’ narrative that the former vice president is slipping. Were this a conventional series of debates, against anything resembling a conventional opponent, such gaffes or stumbles, or even slurs, might seem catastrophic. But the standards of discourse and etiquette have been so degraded in recent years that a couple of stumbles might not have such impact among all the cross-chatter, aggravated interjections, boasts and real-time fact checking from the moderator.
Millions of voters, who have battled it out in verbal stoushes with family members at Thanksgivings or Christmases, will tune into the debates, bristling with enmity and tension, wanting their opinions, prejudices and quirks affirmed and to see rhetorical fireworks and incisive ripostes and damning slams.
Instead, they will be subjected to two septuagenarian grandpas with raspy voices repeating the same arguments and talking points they’ve been trotting out on the campaign trail for months. There is unlikely to be a game-changing moment, but there might be one or two senior moments.
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