Tonight’s first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden comes in the teeth of a lethal and still-growing pandemic, a shattered economy, cataclysmic climate-fueled wildfires, vehicle attacks committed by right-wing extremists against racial justice protesters, a looming Supreme Court placement with the fate of basic rights hanging in the balance, and a long-simmering presidential tax scandal detonating directly on the doorstep of the evening’s festivities.
It is no exaggeration to say Cleveland is on the cusp of hosting what could potentially be the single most consequential political debate since Lincoln v. Douglas. It will take place in the maelstrom of this moment with social distancing and very few people in the debate audience. Featured on that stage will be a long-serving senator from Delaware and a president so utterly corrupt, to nick a line from John Randolph, that he shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.
It’s good to laugh. We have to laugh, have to, because the alternative is screaming, and screaming frightens the children.
There isn’t a damn thing funny about what’s happening tonight, however. It’s somehow fitting that the debate is happening in Cleveland, the city where anything is so totally possible that the river once caught on fire.
The possibilities tonight are potentially terrifying, an accent in this seemingly endless symphony of fear and death. What happens tonight could have an inordinately large say in determining the future, and not a person alive and breathing can confidently guess what is going to go down.
Tonight is the universe shaking a pair of dice in its fist and letting fly toward the felt of the back bumper on the Cleveland craps table that is the rest of our lives.
Tonight will have little effect on Trump’s hardcore base. People who believe Democrats are Satanist cannibal pedophiles whom only Trump can thwart are not likely to be swayed by much in the way of reasoned debate. If a thumb-sized Winston Churchill on a spring bursts from Trump’s forehead tonight and bellows “Buy War Bonds!” at the audience, his base will nod sagely to themselves and say it’s all part of The Plan. There is no fixing that.
Biden, however, has a different challenge. First and foremost, he’s going to be in a cage match with a hammerhead shark, an eating machine with no functioning moral code other than “The only thing better than biting is more biting.”
An increasing number of journalists I deeply respect have spent the last several days using words like “cornered” and “dangerous” to describe the guy walking around with the nuclear codes. There simply is no volume of debate preparation that is adequate to prepare someone for a meeting in a box with a rabid Grizzly bear. You bring the bear Mace and stand your ground, or you get eaten. Debate prep concluded.
There’s the rub. Trump’s attacks on Biden’s mental condition have been unvarnished ageist garbage, as any time spent watching Biden at his convention and on the trail these last weeks makes abundantly clear.
Does Biden have the same fastball he did eight years ago, when he turned Paul Ryan into his own personal sock puppet on national TV? Of course not; frankly, neither do I. If that Biden were showing up tonight, circa 2012 Biden, Trump’s campaign would have already air-mailed the president to McMurdo Sound for a “review of the troops.” Pull a full Al Czervik, whatever it takes. Be anywhere but Cleveland, sir. Trust us, for God’s sake, just this once. You want no part of that.
If Donald Trump could be said to have any singularly special talent, it is his perfect ability to play infuriatingly dirty, to go for the slice to your Achilles and then laugh at you as your calf muscle rolls up in your leg like a window shade. Biden, with his long history of verbal stumbles, unforced errors and occasional bursts of public temper, is a ham sandwich on a plate for a man with Trump’s predilections. If Biden does nothing else tonight, he must hold his composure together with duct tape and bungee cords.
If Biden cannot do this, and the debate spins out of control, it will be all to the good for Donald Trump. Every credible political observer worth the ink in their printer has agreed that Trump intends to menace the 2020 election on November 3 on a variety of fronts, and the only sure way Biden can thwart this is to overwhelm him at the polls.
The landslide to beat all landslides: That is the only way out of a chaotic electoral mess. If Biden has a poor showing tonight, the possibility of that landslide will be diminished. Trump’s voters are seated in concrete, while Biden needs a tidal wave of support to gain power without a protracted and potentially nation-shattering post-election mudfight.
Of course, it is just as likely that Joe Biden will mop the floor with the blowhard who has been pretending to be a president. There are a great many topics of pressing import that will be discussed tonight. If Biden can show Trump to be as disinterested and out of his depth as he has been lo these last four years, his job should take care of itself. There is no promise that will happen, though.
Trump is pretty used up by now, though still an active menace in every respect. If Biden keeps his cool, and more importantly, if he can knock Trump off his rails by mocking and belittling him, this might be the last time we’ll see this racist, sexist, self-serving liar on a debate stage again.