If this is the most important election in decades, this is its most important moment. Thus far, this campaign has been a referendum on Trump; Tuesday’s debate will be one on Biden. Its outcome depends on which Biden shows up.
In 2012, this Biden took quick command of his vice presidential debate with his younger opponent Rep. Paul Ryan.
Like all races with a president seeking re-election, this one has centered on the incumbent. Thanks to a hostile media and Trump’s aggressive use of social media, America has had plenty of material for judgment. Topping it off, 2020 has been an acutely tumultuous year: beginning with an impeachment trial and now a contentious Supreme Court vacancy — with a pandemic, a recession, and nationwide violence in between.
While violence and the vacancy have taken some recent focus off Trump, the campaign’s basic contour has remained a race about him. That will change next Tuesday with the first of three presidential debates. For 90 minutes, America’s focus will be on Joe Biden’s performance in Cleveland.
In conventional campaigns, debates are challengers’ opportunities to elevate themselves to the level of their incumbent opponent. In this most unconventional of campaigns, it presents Biden more risk than opportunity.
Biden has not wanted this focus; through his “virtual campaign,” he has worked hard to avoid it at all costs. Nor has Biden needed it; he has held a consistent lead and used a long political résumé to supplant current scrutiny. Now, though, whether wanted or needed, he will have it. The question is: Which Biden will get this scrutiny?
Tuesday’s Biden could be the professional politician. This Biden has had two previous presidential runs, two terms as vice president, and six terms as senator. He has been in countless public settings, to the point they are second nature.
In 2012, this Biden took quick command of his vice presidential debate with his younger opponent, Rep. Paul Ryan. He was aggressive beyond the point of arrogance, never letting Ryan off the defensive. His persona was completely scripted, and he held it with an actor’s skill throughout the one-sided contest.
But the Biden of 2020 has not been the Biden of 2012. Biden has a long history in public settings; what he has lacked is a current one. Its absence is no more accidental than his 2012 debate Alpha-Male persona; it has been assiduously crafted and adhered to.
Tuesday’s Biden could be the current reclusive one. This Biden exudes fragility. It is the one of continuous gaffes. It is the one who did not win a single one of the countless Democratic debates, even as he won the nomination. It is the one who went into virtual isolation after winning the nomination.
This Biden still cannot speak effectively to his most important constituency, blacks, who saved his campaign and at whom his candidacy so clearly aims. Note how many of his worst gaffes have come in his attempts to connect with them. This Biden has speeches without real audiences and press conferences without real questions.
On Tuesday, in the midst of a four-year referendum on Trump, America will get a one-night reprieve with Biden. There are those on the right who doubt the debate will occur; there are those on the left who doubt that it should. However, none can doubt its potential impact.
A Biden “victory” could cement his lead. A Biden “loss” could give Trump much-needed momentum in a horrendous year. Even more than changing the momentum, a Biden “loss” could change the race’s focus from Trump to Biden, extending this from a single night to the contest’s remaining month. After four years, Americans already know Trump; what they do not know is which Biden will show up. Tuesday’s outcome depends on it.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.