The First Presidential Debate is Tonight

What to Look For. What’s at Stake. What’s at Risk

Do Debates Make Any Difference?

Generally, they do not. But there are exceptions. The first one televised, between Kennedy and Nixon, advantaged Kennedy. The impact of that one debate alone, since the election was so close, was large. The Reagan-Mondale debates might be another one that counts for big impact, all in Reagan’s favor.

Vice Presidential debates rarely tip the balance. But I bet those of us who were around at the time still remember Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating comment to Dan Quale. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

So, they most often have effects at the margin, but there are enough exceptions to not take them for granted.

Moderators Count

The moderator, especially when it is just one and not a panel, can have a huge impact. They can affect how well the debate flows and how good is the quality of the dialogue. They determine how much discipline there is controlling the event and calling out BS.

It will surprise no one reading this when I say that I am not exactly a fan of the Fox network. Still, l am pretty comfortable with Chris Wallace as the moderator of the first debate. The times I have seen him do interviews and debates he has pretty good at making things happen as they should. He is most unlikely to be blustered by Trump’s sure to come shenanigans and tantrums.

The moderator for the second debate is a bit less important, since that one will be a town hall format. Steve Scully of CSPAN has that duty. I don’t know enough about him to make an up-front evaluation. Fingers crossed.

Same for NBC’s Kristen Wellker for the third debate – a bit unknown to me. Susan Page of USA Today is moderating the VP debate. She is knowledgeable and experienced. Will be interesting to see how she handles Pence, since he likely will try to overwhelm her (you know, her being a woman and all that….).

Generally, the Format Sucks

Except for the town hall event, all the debates will have multiple 15-minute segments. They are billed as “discussions.” But they may devolve into the more traditional pattern. A candidate speaks, the other candidate rebuts, the first candidate rebuts the rebuttal. This format is prone to sound bites and fractured content.

We can hope the session will work this into a much more natural exchange and examination of the issues. There are many important topics, but it would be OK to see more time devoted to fewer topics. Candidates need to be challenged to show actual substance beyond the bumper stickers.

It was a debate that had little impact, but I remember the debate between Cheney and Edwards, on PBS. Two guys and a moderator, all sitting down around a table. They were actually talking rather than making statements. No one clearly won that one, in my memory, but it was a heck of a good format.

Why This Round Might Count a Lot

For the longest time, the consensus has been that Biden has the most to loose. He is ahead by almost every measure, and he has an uneven performance history in these things. That is all still true. But there is another perspective.

Trump’s efforts to date to spark his campaign have failed across the board. His old bag of tricks is not working. He seems determined to alienate everyone not a rabid fan or to obviously patronize others.

Remember the sudden availability of cash for Puerto Rico? How about pardoning Susan B. Anthony? The joke of a declaration that the US policy is for no insurance restrictions for preexisting conditions (accurately described by someone as a tweet on fancy paper)? None of that is going to fool anyone. So, for Trump, he either needs a Hail Mary performance or a major failure by Biden. Either is possible. Neither is likely.

Personalities will be on Display

Trump will try coming out of the gate to be brash, abrasive, and loud. He will go early for personal insults and wild claims, both as to what he has done and what Biden would do. The man cannot help himself. If Biden and Wallace do their respective jobs, Trump will look foolish and empty of ideas or capacity.

Biden will continue to look presidential. He will make it clear he is a standard bearer that everyone can identify with. He will constantly cite the specifics of Trump’s non record. (“How many Americans will needlessly die of this virus while we stand here tonight, as a direct result of your failure to lead? The answer is far too many.”).

If Biden stays cool, shows a mastery of process and facts, and alternately attacks and mocks Trump, he should come out in good shape. Time will tell.

Where/When Do I Watch This Thing?

The debate begins at 9 p.m. ET tonight, from Cleveland. It should be widely available on TV/radio and streamed from nearly unlimited sources.

No matter how this one goes, the second event, the town hall, should be most interesting. Both candidates will be thinking about what they need to do to capitalize or correct on the first debate. The format should be a disaster for Trump, by nature, but we shall see.

Get some popcorn and tune in tonight, folks. The stakes are high and we are along for the ride.

            Bill Clontz

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2 replies to The First Presidential Debate is Tonight

  1. Kristen Welker is wonderful. She is smart, well informed and very direct. She should be good. I remember Scully, but can’t remember where from; I think 60 minutes, but unsure.

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