By Larry Levine –
You are Joe Biden’s political consultant. You are guiding the strategy for Tuesday night’s Presidential debate. You can take either of several paths with the opening statement:
1. Good-guy Joe promising to save the soul of our country and restore honesty and civility to the national discourse while bringing all parties to the table to work for America,
2. Bait President Trump by reciting how many people have died since he proclaimed the coronavirus a hoax, cite the number of lies he has told in office and say it’s no surprise because he lied to the voters from the very start when he said Mexico would pay for the wall,
3. Open with the first and segue to the second.
Which way would you advise Vice President Biden to go?
The upside of #1 is that what America’s so-called swing voters want more than anything right now is calm, positive leadership. The downside is that Trump is likely to go into attack mode and Biden might look weak by comparison.
The upside of #2 is the likelihood of Trump coming unhinged and going into the kind of rant that would remind people of all the worst about him. The downside is Biden would look like more of the same instead of an alternative to Trump and could create justification for Trump’s attacks.
I’m not sure there is an upside to #3. It would be a mixed message that could give voters a muddled picture of Joe Biden and what he is offering.
No body’s paying me for my advice but from a distance and with absolutely not research available, I would suggest a soft opening as in #1 because that’s where voters are most comfortable of Biden. I would have Biden armed with talking points to poke at Trump a few times throughout the debate, but not constantly. Voters already know Donald Trump and what they think of him. Joe Biden needs to be the “not Trump.” But he cannot look weak if the nation is to believe he can stand up to Putin, et al.
Moderator for the debate from 9 to 10:30 p.m. eastern time Tuesday, Sept. 29, will be Fox News host Chris Wallace. The Fox News affiliation has drawn concerns from some on the left, but Trump has said he fears Wallace is “controlled by the radical left” and won’t ask Biden hard questions. Wallace is generally viewed as a down the middle journalist. He previously worked as a White House correspondent and anchor for NBC Nightly News and as anchor for Primetime Thursday and Nightline at ABC.
The debate will take place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland OH. The 90 minutes will be divided into six 15-minute segments devoted to the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election.
The Supreme Court segment should give Biden an opportunity to hang the writings and decisions of new nominee Amy Coney Barrett firmly around Trump’s neck and force him to defend and explain her positions against the Affordable Care Act, a women’s right to choose and other issues.
The COVID-19 discussion will give Biden a chance to exploit what most Americans already believe – that Trump’s bungling and lies led to 200,000 deaths and millions of illnesses. We can expect in this segment that Trump will continue to tout his self-defined success in leading America to a better response than any other nation.
The segment on the economy gives Biden another opportunity to go after Trump’s incompetence and dishonesty and lay blame for the mess at the feet of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Race and violence in our cities will find Trump claiming to be the law-and-order candidate who will crack down on violent socialists who are causing the problems. He will continue to try to sell the message that Biden will destroy the suburbs. Biden must not take the bait. He needs to talk calmly of the problems that rip at the soul of America, how Trump is not the solution to those problems and how he can bring the nation together.
The segment on the integrity of the election is devoid of integrity. It is an issue Trump has created, one that will gain credibility by being included in this debate. Trump will continue to rail against absentee voting and claim the system is riddled with fraud. Biden needs to meet that head on, but briefly, and pivot to the influence of foreign governments in the process. He should use the opportunity to underscore Trump’s embrace of dictators and serve warning to those dictators that their world will change in a Biden administration.
Going into the evening, Biden needs to know Trump will lie repeatedly. Biden cannot be tempted to address or even call out every lie. But he should make a check mark for each lie and at some point late in the debate, possibly in the closing remarks, he should tell the audience how many times Trump has lied or distorted his (Trump’s) record during the debate and promise that he will bring truth and civility back to the White House.