by Newt Gingrich
I am really looking forward to Tuesday night’s Presidential Debate.
I have no idea which Joe Biden will show up for the debate. And I have no idea how President Donald Trump will respond to whichever Biden appears on stage.
Chris Wallace, the moderator (and a serious, reliably objective journalist), is a much more predictable participant. I am confident President Trump will competently handle his questions.
However, it is the Biden uncertainty which is much more interesting.
The Biden we have been watching since he clinched the Democratic nomination has been more and more incompetent and unpredictable. He hides in the Wilmington, Delaware basement about half the time (specifically, there have been scant interactions between the Democratic Presidential candidate and the news media or the public in recent days).
When the former vice president has been in public, his performances have been erratic and have often included one or more clear mistakes. At times, Biden’s verbal stumbling has been cringeworthy and made me wonder why his campaign is putting him through such public embarrassment.
And yet, Biden – as recently as this year – has been an effective debater. One has to wonder if the Biden team reached the conclusion that the debates would decide the election, so they deliberately set up a pattern to lower expectations. The aim could be that Biden could win the debates by just showing up and not collapsing.
If this was a strategy – and we see a bright, energetic, aggressive former vice president on stage Tuesday night – it will have been one of the most daring (potentially effective) presidential campaign strategies in American history.
President Trump and his supporters need to remember that just in March, Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh wrote that Biden “dominated” his debate against Sen. Bernie Sanders. As Lehigh wrote:
“[I]n a time when the coronavirus crisis has a frightened country desperate for competent leadership, Biden demonstrated that he knows what must be done now in the struggle to contain the contagion and what will be required in the future to help hard-pressed Americans keep their lives and families more or less intact.”
Todd Graham, a decorated debate coach writing for CNN, agreed with Lehigh’s assessment. He gave Joe Biden an “A” for his debate performance, calling it “his best debate ever.”
“Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his previous debates, former Vice President Joe Biden met one of the most pivotal moments of his career with his best debate ever… Amid the novel coronavirus crisis that has gripped the nation — and the world — the two Democratic presidential contenders were grilled on how they would handle the pandemic and while Biden was ready with strong, thoughtful responses,” Graham wrote.
If you think about the length of Biden’s career, it should not be surprising that he is a competent debater. He was elected to the US Senate a few weeks before he was old enough to be sworn in (the requirement is 30).
Over 36 years in the Senate, Biden had endless opportunities to debate others in committee and on the floor. His career includes three presidential campaigns and two vice presidential campaigns.
In the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, he more than held his own with Gov. Sarah Palin. In the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate, there was a general agreement that he was more aggressive and more dominant than then-Congressman (later Speaker) Paul Ryan.
As President Trump and his team prepare for Tuesday night, it is the 2012 debate between Biden and Ryan they should really study. Ryan is one of the smartest people to serve in Congress in this generation. He is deeply thoughtful and knows an immense amount. However, he discovered debating Biden was a totally different challenge. Consider these reactions:
“He was priest to Paul Ryan’s flummoxed altar boy, scoutmaster to Ryan’s nervous, tongue-tied knot-tier. His smile veered—yes—between amused and condescending, depending on the honey or vinegar with which he referred to Ryan as ‘my friend,’” wrote Saul Loeb for Vanity Fair.
Biden came out over Ryan in polls by Business Insider and CBS, and in ABC’s coverage following the debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper said that while some Democrats voiced concerns over how the age difference between the two would play out, “Obviously, Vice President Biden came ready to play… Democrats will be energized by the Vice-President’s performance this evening, they’ll be excited.”
In October 2012, The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman wrote: “Joe Biden’s alpha-male display leaves Paul Ryan overwhelmed in VP debate.” Burkeman continued: “Joe Biden, whose high-energy performance – part angry bar-room debater, part condescending elder uncle, part comic mime artist – frequently seemed to leave Paul Ryan overwhelmed.”
Finally, BuzzFeed News Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith said Biden, “dominated Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate, hammering Rep. Paul Ryan again and again during his portion of the night while his laughs, smirks, chuckles, cackles and hand-gestures overwhelmed Ryan’s more understated jabs.”
So, President Trump and his team must prepare for two totally different debates depending on which Biden shows up.
If the recent stumbling, embarrassing, forgetful Biden shows up, President Trump must defeat him calmly and firmly – but without bullying or humiliating him.
On the other hand, if the energetic, well-prepared “alpha male” Biden is at the debate, President Trump must use the toughness and directness he showed so ably with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Since we have no idea which Biden will appear – and therefore no idea what President Trump will do to defeat him – this debate will be as much reality TV as anyone has ever seen.
I am really looking forward to it.