“Trump v. Biden” could have multiple meaning this election cycle: the debates, the actual election, and perhaps a Supreme Court case to decide the outcome of this election. The first of three presidential debates will take place in Cleveland, Ohio, a state that President Donald Trump won by over 8 points in 2016, on Tuesday night.
This Tuesday has been circled on calendars across America since Super Tuesday, when it became more clear that former Vice President Joe Biden would be the 2020 Democrat nominee for president. The debate will be moderated by FOX News’ Chris Wallace, who both Trump and Biden have clashed with in the past. This will be the first long-form appearance for Biden as he will be on TV screens across America alongside President Trump for 90 minutes.
Both candidates have a lot to accomplish in this debate even though most Americans have made up their minds on who they are voting for. But, the goal of the debate is not to persuade people to vote for them over the other, rather turn out their voters to the polls.
Polling has shown that Biden’s base is weaker than President Trump’s because it encompasses a larger group of ideologically different people. Back in January, progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was correct when she said “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” This is the epitome of the Biden Dilemma with this election cycle.
The Democrat's “tent” is so big that it is going to be difficult for Biden to appease everyone who is supporting him to take the White House in 34 days. Bernie Sanders’ primary voters are going to be looking for Biden to champion progressive values while moderate Democrats are going to be looking for Biden to stand by his moderate platform from the primaries that helped him defeat Sanders and other progressive candidates. Therein lies Biden’s biggest hurdle Tuesday night, one President Trump is keenly aware of.
Trump is going to reiterate, as he has been doing, the socialist message that is being pushed by the Sanders wing of the party. Biden has to make a calculated decision of either defending the socialist terminology Trump will use, appeasing the far-left wing, or claim to not be a socialist and undermine the progressive cause, appeasing moderates. There is very little room to thread the needle between the two.
This issue is so important for the reason I mentioned above: voter turnout. If Biden is going to win in November, he needs progressives and moderates to vote for him, and it doesn't help to have the progressive left already skeptical of him.
So, what should Biden do? The progressive left is going to be Biden’s main audience Tuesday night, not moderates. The former Vice President has some ground to make up with them after he said he “beat the socialist” in Wisconsin last week.
“I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist.” — Vice President Joe Biden, September 21, 2020
If the progressive left watches this debate and is not pleased — that is bad news for the Biden campaign. This wing of the party proved in 2020 that they are not an automatic shoo-in for the Democrat candidate, as many stayed home while a few voted for Trump. So, Biden should try to please them. Tuesday is the first of three debates; Biden will have time to shore up his moderate vote between now and election day.
Biden will of course hit Trump on COVID-19, as much of Biden’s campaign has centered around the virus. But, oddly enough he doesn’t have much to gain by hitting Trump with the issue in the debates. Party lines have been drawn when it comes to the COVID; nobody is going to be swayed by any argument by any candidate. The only thing the virus topic can be useful for is to unite the liberal and moderate wings of the Democrat party, although it won’t last long given the number of topics that are going to be covered.
The coveted Supreme Court seat, which Judge Amy Coney Barrett was just appointed to Saturday, also will only serve as a unifying force for both candidate’s bases and will not sway anyone’s minds. Biden can shore up his base by slamming the move while Trump can please his base by accurately claiming his constitutional obligation to appoint a nominee to the seat. If anyone is disadvantaged in this topic, it’s Biden because can’t hit Trump too hard; President Obama made an appointment in 2016, but the Senate did not accept the nomination. Additionally, since the confirmation is expected to take place prior to November 3, the result of this election will not sway the outcome of this particular seat.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone in this country who’s mind is not made up about Donald Trump. The President’s base is solid and consists of people who absolutely love him and others who dislike his tactics but like the overall presidency. Trump is not going to win over any meaningful amount of new voters in any debate. His most valuable outcome of the debate will be to drive a wedge between Biden voters and make Biden appear less-desirable to the progressive wing of the Democrat party.
As I mentioned above, the progressive wing is the weakest part of Biden’s overall weak base. Trump’s best tactic of the debate will get Biden to slam progressive ideals, alienating the far-left wing of the party against the former Vice President. Joe Biden has already shown a willingness to leave socialist ideals in the dust, as recent as last week (see above), for more moderate policies. There are plenty of issues where the Democrat party has differing opinions within the party — most notably healthcare. It will be easy for Trump to say “Biden supports universal health care,” and difficult for Biden to respond.
Another potentially vulnerable issue for Biden could be court-packing. Biden is on record in 2019 saying that he would oppose court-packing. Just a few days ago, he sidestepped the question. Trump (and Wallace) have the opportunity to put Biden in the difficult position of either defending to rejecting court-packing. In the past few days, several Democrat US Senators have come out against court-packing, perhaps paving a way for Biden to support the practice and for the blame fall to the Senate if not accomplished. However, Biden supporting court-packing would be a major flip form his nearly 50 years in Washington DC.
Conservatives have maintained for several months that Joe Biden’s mental acuity has sharply decreased since his exit from the executive branch at the beginning of 2017, citing multiple gaffs made by Biden since the 2018 midterm elections. Tuesday is going to be the ultimate test of this claim. Trump has proven that he can go for hours on end when it comes to public speaking. Biden has not.
Yes, Biden debated in the primaries but a majority of those debates were with 5+ candidates, limiting speaking time. The final CNN debate was only between Biden and Sanders but was not 90 minutes in length. Republicans are pointing those facts out, claiming Biden will not be able to win against Trump in the debates. In fact, more Americans agree than disagree. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll shows 47% of Americans think Trump will win the debate, while 41% think Biden will win the debate.
However, conservatives along with President Trump have changed their tune in recent days out of fear they are setting the bar too low for Biden. Trump said as recently as last Monday, “[Biden] has been doing it for 47 years, I’ve been doing it for 3 and a half.” Trump is also calling on Biden to take a drug test before the debate to make sure the former Vice President is not unfairly advantaged. Even with the bar being raised, Trump must prove his claims of Biden’s failing mind on Tuesday night.
One way Trump can make Biden uneasy is to bring up one of the President’s favorite subjects: Hunter Biden. Joe Biden gets very defensive and shows a bit of a temper whenever the story about Hunter accepting a sizeable amount of money from a Ukrainian organization while his father was Vice President comes up. If Trump brings up Hunter Biden in the first few minutes of the debate, it could throw Biden off for the rest of the night.
What to Watch For
Biden has a substantially higher hill to climb than Trump on Tuesday night. The former Vice President has to thread the needle to please both moderate democrats and progressives, prove he is mentally competent to be President, and if all else fails, maintain an appeal to the progressive base of the Democrat party. If Biden fails at any one of these, he could be seen as the loser of the debate and even lose votes in the election.
Trump on the other hand will have it easier. The President should make it his goal to sow discord between the two factions of the Democrat party while trying to make Biden uneasy. President Trump has shown that he is not afraid to cut people off, go past time limits, and defend his actions. He has the opportunity to walk all over former Vice President Joe Biden if he does just that.