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OPINION | Joe Biden should debate; he’ll probably win

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WHY would a benevolent God deny us the prospect of a debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump?

As the first head-to-head between the two presidential candidates approaches, leading voices on the center-left have been making the case that Biden should not debate the President.

In the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argued that Biden should only agree to a debate if Trump released his tax returns and if there were real-time fact-checking. “That kind of debate and only that kind of debate would be worthy of voters’ consideration and Biden’s participation,” wrote Friedman. “Otherwise, Joe, stay in your basement.”

Despite repeated assertions from Biden and his team that he’s ready to take on Trump, there’s been heavy Republican speculation that he’ll withdraw. “The media is already covering for his inevitable, probable pull-out from the debate, because the guy can’t speak to a group of 10 people without a teleprompter,” master debater Donald Trump Jr. told an Iowa radio host last week.

You don’t have to be a sadistic car-crash TV fanatic or a Trump supporter to want to witness a Biden-Trump debate. And given the hype of the last few weeks, there’s every reason to think Biden stands to gain more than Trump does when the two face off. Why? Well, all the talk of Biden pulling out only serves to lower expectations so far down that Biden will have to perform spectacularly badly in order to disappoint.

After covering three of the 11 Democratic primary debates in person, I’ve witnessed first-hand how low their bar already is. The sheer number of contests no doubt assisted with this: while earlier Biden performances produced a number of memorable senior moments (“make sure you have the record player on at night”) and brutal attacks (“that little girl was me”), by the time it got to the ninth clash in New Hampshire, it started to seem like he could withstand anything.

It’s worth remembering how Biden performed in previous head-to-heads: 46% of undecided voters thought he beat Sarah Palin in the 2008 VP debate, while his “alpha-male” display against Paul Ryan in 2012 helped the Democrats bounce back after Obama’s “abysmal” showing in the Denver debate the week before. Needless to say, the Joe Biden of 2020 doesn’t measure up too well to 2008 Biden or 2012 Biden in the cerebral department. But perhaps reintroducing Biden into the familiar environment of a one-on-one debate will bring forth his true self, like one of those heartwarming viral videos in which elderly people with dementia play old music perfectly from memory.


Republicans are also glossing over another uncomfortable fact: Trump isn’t a very good debater. While the President fared well in the verbal brawls that were the Republican primary debates, he was much less impressive going blow for blow against Hillary Clinton. There are high hopes that Trump will sink Biden with a well-crafted zinger — like the “because you’d be in jail” that everyone remembers from 2016 — but what if his joke sounds callous and backfires? People don’t loathe Joe in the way they despised Hillary. Julián Castro just looked cruel when he went after Biden last September. Everyone is expecting Biden to blunder, yet it seems just as likely that Trump might say something horrendous.

Then you’ve got to factor in what issues the debates will likely cover: the coronavirus, the economy, healthcare, race, fitness to govern. Trump and his campaign have been launching attacks on Biden which give a taste of what is to come. So far, most blows have failed to land: despite various recent blunders, does Trump truly think he can win votes by portraying Joe Biden as a racist? How can the President counter the Biden claim that the absence of a coordinated federal response to the coronavirus resulted in thousands of needless deaths? Current polls indicate that voters feel Biden is beating Trump on the issues — the bar is so low that to win the debates, Biden just has to show up and state the record. That’s his best shot at swaying undecided voters.

The first debate might take place behind a med school rather than a gym, but don’t rule out Biden “beating the hell” out of Trump when we get there.

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