GEROW: Observations Worth Noting Before The First Presidential Debate

(LEFT: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images; RIGHT: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Charlie Gerow Contributor
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Through the years I’ve been privileged to be behind the curtain of many candidate debates. I’ve both debated as a candidate myself and advised and helped prepare presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial candidates as well as scores of down ballot races.

On the eve of the first presidential debate of 2020 a couple of things are worth noting.

First, these aren’t really “debates,” at least not in the traditional Oxford-style model. They’re much more a series of mini-press conferences or media appearances all within one night. This one will be moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

In these forums, voters get a chance to see the candidates up close and personal, under fire and away from the carefully scripted words written by others or portrayed in slick 30-second commercials. In this case it will be a rare public view of Joe Biden, who has spent the bulk of the campaign hunkered down in his basement.

There’s generally not a lot of deep diving into issues, but the forums do let voters get a broad sense of where the candidates stand on the big issues. More significantly, they get the themes of the two campaigns and the rehearsed lines they want viewers to remember and tell their friends. They might also be treated to a “gotcha” moment such as the famed Ronald Reagan retort about his age in the 1984 finale.

Projecting authenticity and a sense of humanity to the watching audience, estimated to top 100 million between television and live-streaming, is key to “success” in these formats.

But let’s be clear, the minute this event concludes the media will crown Joe Biden as the “winner.”

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First is the increasingly evident fact that the national media isn’t impartial. They are more and more a mouthpiece for the Biden campaign and the leftist agenda it espouses.

Second is the fact that there’s an exceptionally low expectation of Joe Biden’s performance. Clearing the very low hurdle of simply showing up and not committing any of the gaffes he’s famous for or appearing confused as he has in several of his rare public appearances may be enough for the media to slobber over his appearance.

Democrats are so concerned over Biden’s potential for a dismal debate performance that several, led by Nancy Pelosi, said he shouldn’t even show up.

Biden didn’t want to be seen as so weak that he couldn’t even face Trump. Instead he adopted a strategy of staying out of sight and away from answering even the softball questions the media would throw his way. Rather, he’s used carefully scripted appearances, reading words others wrote for him attacking President Trump for everything from the Wuhan flu to violence in our streets.

That’s not likely to get him through a 2-hour debate or past the inquisitive minds of that small sliver of the electorate that’s still undecided and wants to hear the specifics of how he would govern the nation. The post-debate pundits won’t be able to credibly fill in the blanks for Biden. He’ll have to make the case for himself.

For President Trump there’s a challenge because of this. He’s got to “be Donald Trump.” It’s what voters expect and know. But his free-wheeling style could boomerang, making Joe Biden a sympathetic character if Trump attacks his mental or physical frailty too ferociously.

The president would do well to use his time to project his strength and draw out Joe Biden on the specifics of his policies. Does Biden fully embrace the leftist policies of the Sanders/Biden Unity Plan? Is he completely on board with the Green New Deal? Does he support a ban on fracking and the resulting loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in pivotal states like Pennsylvania? Why did he take so long to even mildly decry the violence in the nation’s streets? Who would he nominate to the Supreme Court?

That would fill all the debate and not even media talking heads could rescue Biden if he embraces the radical Left agenda as he is sure to do.

The outcome of debates follows the expectations entering them. Biden certainly benefits from low expectations. But voters want more from the leader of the free world than merely the ability to take two hours without committing verbal suicide.

Tuesday night will contrast a dynamic, energetic agenda, campaign and candidate with a sleepy and stagnant alternative. Regardless of what the talking heads tell us following, voters will know the difference.

Charlie Gerow is a Republican strategist, CEO of Quantum Communications and Vice Chairman of the American Conservative Union