Sat, Jul

Debate Drama: Does He or Doesn't He?


GELFAND’S WORLD - Does he or doesn't he intend to show up for the debate against Joe Biden this week? My guess is that Donald Trump will be there and that he will manage to acquit himself marginally well. He won't be able to answer technical questions the way ordinary politicians learn to do, but he will be reasonably successful in changing the subject. He will brag about his foreign policy successes and progress towards peace in the middle east. If he manages to avoid talking about his own legal troubles at least some of the time, he will have the opportunity to score a few points. 

Of course, this all depends on whether Trump has fended off the cognitive decline and/or dementia that the other side is talking about. All those episodes where he forgot his doctor's name or couldn't identify some country? Maybe this is just what happens when you are tired and distracted. The debate will be a crucial piece of evidence that will tell us whether Donald Trump is mentally functional, even at a marginal level. 

And one additional factor that has not been discussed as much as it ought to be: Can Trump manage his own temper? If he can't, it will be a serious mistake, the kind that costs votes. 

On the other hand, Biden might be the one to show a little mental slowness. His supporters worried themselves half to death before his State of the Union speech, and then he delivered the goods. (I'm avoiding saying, "Biden hit one out of the park" because I'm tired of sports metaphors.) Still, Biden moves with a certain stiffness which has more and more been remarked upon. 

Trump and his supporters have just spent the past half year accusing Joe Biden of being on stimulants, so we can -- with reasonable reliability -- infer that Trump himself is on stimulants and has been so for the past couple of years and maybe for dozens of years. The rule with Trump is that whenever he makes an accusation against somebody else, it is really because he himself is guilty of the same thing. 

Of course, the accusations against Biden were also an attempt to undercut his triumph in the State of the Union speech. He stayed on point, went head-to-head with Republican hecklers, and didn't fall asleep at the podium. This certainly was a big contrast to the reports and photos of Trump falling asleep at his own trial. 

So here we go, with the reasonable and righteous expectation that there will be a presidential debate on Thursday. (It's true that Trump supporters have been laying the groundwork for Trump to cancel the debates, but the closer we get, the harder it becomes for the Trump team to find a plausible excuse.) Of course the Trump team can make something up and most of the Trump supporters will at least pretend to believe, but it would be damaging to Trump's chances among the independent voters and among the quizzical wing of the Republican Party. They will wonder why he is being a coward and what he is trying to hide. 

So let's assume for the moment that the debate will go on, that both candidates will present themselves, and that the rules will be followed for the most part. After all, it will be a lot harder for Trump to go all vampire on Biden the way he did when he crept up behind Hillary in their debate. We can imagine that both candidates will occasionally talk a bit too long and that the moderators will allow a bit of slack, but we can also expect that neither candidate will get away with outright bullying. It will be interesting to see how muting the microphones works in this context. 

How should the moderator begin the questioning? 

One way -- the preferable way -- would be to begin with a technical sort of question that would be appropriate for normal candidates. Perhaps a slightly complicated inquiry about some foreign policy dispute such as the South China Sea, or perhaps one on military support for Ukraine. The idea is to test whether the candidates are capable of acting as chief executive as of next January. We have a pretty good idea that Biden is functional, whether or not you agree with his decisions, but there is real question about whether Trump could be even an ordinary president, based on the evidence compiled by numerous journalists and as described by his own formerly presidential staff. 

It's inevitable that abortion will come up. Will Trump be able to get away with moving towards the center? He has been trying to do so, but there are those 3 Supreme Court appointees wrapped around his neck. Biden's best approach is to keep flogging on the Dobbs ruling and follow up by talking about the Republican desire to outlaw contraception. 

An aside: John Stuart Mill pointed out that in some countries, the Puritans had taken power and basically outlawed everything that is fun. It is time to start pointing out that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is approaching Puritan status. Will they try to outlaw alcohol next? 

Under these circumstances, Trump's answers will be treated critically and even negatively by college professors, the same way that George W. Bush had a difficult night against Al Gore. But college professors are not the majority of voters, and we can expect that Donald Trump will mostly hold his own among his own group of supporters merely by repeating his old lines and some of his new lies. 

Where Biden is going to get into trouble will be the inevitable question about the war in Gaza. Trump only has to make a couple of grandiose claims to take the high ground. He will claim that Hamas would never have attacked Israel under his leadership, and who is to tell him No? Biden has enough of a problem threading the needle in how he acts, and it will be that much harder for him to try to use words to explain the unexplainable. Look for Biden to come out with some newly phrased explanation for our policy in an attempt to temporize. After all, it's the public perception of how each candidate does during the debate that supposedly matters. Biden would be helped if there is another cease fire between now and next Thursday. 

Joe Biden has one advantage in the upcoming debate. He has more latitude to be angry and to show his anger. It would be interesting if Biden can point out to the American public that most of what Trump says is projection, pure and simple. The worst case of Trumpian projection is when Trump calls somebody else crooked. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)