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Sleepy Joe

Joe Biden Should Be Boring in Thursday’s Debate

Voters don’t need zingers or put-downs. They need to be reminded that an adult is in charge.

Joe Biden grasps a lectern and laughs, closing his eyes and showing pearly white teeth.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Joe Biden laughs during the first debate against Donald Trump in 2020.

In keeping with the time-honored principles of journalistic overkill, the only entities that have not yet weighed in with their debate previews are two laggard preschools in Wichita, Kansas, and isolated pockets of Ukrainian soldiers in heavy combat with the Russians in the Donetsk region. 

The 64-year history of presidential debates—dating back to John Kennedy and Richard Nixon meeting in a Chicago TV studio in late September 1960—has been strip-mined for relevant moments. We have been treated to highlights and lowlights from prior face-offs ranging from the 73-year-old Ronald Reagan in 1984 defusing the age issue with a quip (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”) to Donald Trump stalking the stage in 2016 against Hillary Clinton like a mugger in a dark alley. 

But what has been missing from most of these debate scorecards and strategy memos is a sense of timing. Thursday night’s podium battle between Joe Biden and Trump will be taking place three months earlier than any prior major-party debate in history—and four months before early voting begins in earnest. 

In a sense, we are still in the preseason football stage of the presidential campaign—and most of the pre-debate commentary fails to reflect this reality. In early summer, with bleak November far away, voters in swing states like Wisconsin and Arizona are in no mood for extended policy debates, even if Trump could stay on a single topic for more than 35 seconds. In similar fashion, this is not the moment when Biden can convince dubious voters that the American economy is the envy of the world, even though it is the truth.

Thursday night’s battle revolves almost exclusively around feelings. Democrats are desperate to convince voters that Biden, while never inspiring, is up for a second term in his eighties. And they also nurture the realistic hope that Trump—despite instructions from his handlers to tone it down—cannot last 90 minutes on TV without coming across as deranged. 

Biden’s biggest obstacle is his age. A devastating New York Times/Siena College Poll in late February found that 47 percent of voters “strongly agree” that Biden is too old to be an effective president—and that a further 26 percent “somewhat agree.” Biden, with his shuffling gait and a voice that sometimes is little more than a whisper, can never fully defeat Father Time. But a steady debate performance on Thursday would go a long way to demonstrate to skeptical voters that Biden can handle four more years in the Oval Office. 

Of course, the debate brings with it major risks for Biden. A series of verbal slips, or a few TV shots in which the president seems confused, could be devastating. But the Biden campaign cleverly convinced Trump to agree to a late June debate. What that means is that the Democrats have four long months to recover from a faltering Biden debate performance. Given that voters currently seemed more concerned about Biden’s age than they do about the risks posed by a second Trump term, that makes Thursday’s debate a low-stakes gambit for the Democrats—an early attempt to push the stakes of the upcoming election that likely has greater long-term risks for Trump. 

Biden, better than anyone, knows how quickly the effects of a devastating debate can wear off. By all measures, the worst debate performance in history (non-Trump division) was Barack Obama’s listless first encounter with Mitt Romney in early October 2012. A CNN poll after the debate found that viewers by an overwhelming 67-to-25 percent margin believed that Romney had won. But the momentum shifted a week later when an aggressive Biden, by most accounts, bested Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate; Romney never regained his mojo. 

With Democrats always one news cycle away from panic, a bumbling presidential performance in Atlanta would inevitably trigger another self-defeating round of dump-Biden rumors. Such a turnabout seems ludicrously unlikely, in part, because the Democratic delegates are slated to renominate Biden and Kamala Harris virtually before the Chicago convention. A cockamamie Ohio law requires the Democrats to list their nominees by August 7, almost two weeks before the convention. As a result, the roll-call vote at the Chicago convention would be entirely symbolic. 

Many of the debate primers for Biden feature tips on how he can cleverly provoke Trump to come across as a refugee from the psychiatric ward. But, in truth, if Trump couldn’t control himself in a courtroom with his freedom on the line, at the end of the 90-minute debate it is likely that the Orange Man will appear more unhinged than a screen door outside a haunted house. 

I suspect that there have been many internal discussions in the Biden campaign about how to highlight Trump’s unique legal status as a convicted felon. But a strong argument can be made that this is another situation where there is really no need to overthink things. The CNN moderators (Dana Bash and Jake Tapper) are virtually certain to ask Trump about his parole officer or related topics. The words “convicted felon” would have so much more weight if they came from the moderator. 

Trump, of course, in sewer-dwelling style will do everything in his power to provoke Biden. He will probably accuse the president of encouraging rapists to surge across the border and, of course, rail against Hunter and the entire “Biden crime family.” The trick for Biden—and I am not certain that the president can pull it off—would be to let Trump snarl and sputter without sinking to his level. 

But in the end, Democrats should realize that Biden wins the debate if he comes across as competent, even if he is a bit boring. This is not a debate that requires clever zingers and rehearsed put-downs. What the voters want from the president is not a level of that charisma that is beyond his capabilities, but rather the reassuring sense that a caring adult is in charge of the government.