As we have seen, 2020 is like no other election year. Most obviously, we have a pandemic, which in turn, has caused an economic recession. Republicans try to downplay the importance of the virus, despite the fact that it has attacked every country in the world. Democrats say America has the worst record on Covid-19, and blame Donald Trump for that. However, they are not clear on what Trump might have done differently.
Of course, that leads to the recession, but once you have a pandemic, a recession is a natural outcome. The administration clearly did not cause the recession. However, it could be argued that something might have been done to make the pain more “fair.” While millions have been thrown out of work, with the fear and dislocation that causes, the stock market has boomed, and the rich have only gotten happily richer. It could also be argued that Trump’s demand for tax breaks for workers makes no sense, since people who are still working are not the ones who need the help. In fact, the tax that Trump wants to cut is exactly the one that provides the safety net for the unemployed and elderly—most notably, Social Security and Medicare.
Beyond the pandemic and recession, there are other issues that make 2020 unique. Highest among them is the question of debates. There have been televised debates ever since 1960, when John F. Kennedy met Richard Nixon onstage. People who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, with more focus on issues; but those who watched on TV overwhelmingly thought Kennedy won—because of his charm, his great smile, and wonderful tan. Clearly, Nixon would have been wise to refuse to debate, in an election that was so close that any small thing might have made the difference.
It’s certainly not unheard of to refuse to debate. In fact, in 2016, it was Trump, himself, who refused to debate in the final Republican primary debate. The debates began with Republican candidates not challenging Trump. Their attitude toward him was the same as most people now consider the “campaign” of Kanye West—as nothing more than a publicity stunt, or at best, an attempt to siphon Black voters away from Biden. West has, of course, been a Trump booster, and despite his wife saying he’s mentally ill, he could become the “Ralph Nader” of 2020.
There have been many “joke” candidates over the years. In fact, some have even been comedians, such as in 1972, when Pat Paulsen ran with the slogan, “We cannot stand Pat!” (Pat was the name of Nixon’s wife.) More recently, Stephen Colbert tried to get onto the 2016 ballot. Actual candidates became jokes, most notably Harold Stassen, who was considered a “whiz kid” when he was a front-runner for the 1948 Republican nomination, but then he became a joke, when he ran for the Republican nomination in 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992 (when he was 85).
Anyway, that’s how Republican candidates saw Trump—until the debate when he was finally taken seriously and was attacked from all sides. Notably, that was the debate when Marco Rubio questioned Trump’s manhood by ridiculing Trump’s “small hands.” Immediately after that, Trump said debates were ridiculous and refused to participate in the final debate, slated to be hosted by Fox News. Many think the other candidates should have continued without Trump, attacking him without response. Missed opportunity.
Grabbing the opportunity can be important. An important example was when the Soviet Union boycotted the United Nations in 1950, wanting the real government of China to take the “China” seat in the UN (the seat had followed the losing side to Taiwan, but was still considered “China”). However, the absence of the USSR gave the United States the opportunity to get the United Nations to begin the “police action” against North Korea. The US could then deny that we were at war against North Korea—it was the UN.
This year, Trump could buy airtime and have a “debate” with an empty chair, to point out that Biden refused to show up. Clint Eastwood tried that ruse at the 2012 Republican convention, with the empty chair supposedly Barack Obama. Oddly, while Eastwood was an accomplished movie director, he didn’t set it up well, and the gimmick fell flat, leaving the convention-goers and home audience scratching their heads.
Obviously, it’s always the person who is behind that wants to debate. In 2016, Trump refused to debate, not only because the previous one didn’t go well, but by that time, Trump was clearly the leader—so why risk onstage attacks? This year, polls show that Biden is ahead, so it’s Trump who is demanding debates, even asking that the first debate be brought forward.
So the first reason why Biden doesn’t want to debate is—he doesn’t need it. Trump is the one who is behind now, and why give Trump what he wants? Biden supporters say he should demand conditions in order to participate, such as real-time fact-checking by a third party, agreed on by the participants.
The second explanation is that Biden is prone to gaffes, as we’ve seen lately—unprompted awkward comments. Of course, we’ve had presidents before who were awkward, most recently, Gerald Ford and George Bush. Both were a relief, because they followed “slick” presidents, Nixon and Clinton. Quite possibly, Biden’s goofiness could be seen as a relief from Trump’s strident hostility.
So far, the gaffes have not caused Biden any particular trouble. In the age of Trump, people are just saying, ‘oh, that’s just Joe,” in the same way they said, “that’s just Trump,” in innumerable instances, from grabbing women by the p*ssy, to suggesting we drink bleach to fight Covid-19. His own people say, “don’t listen to his words,” and that mentality seems to be working in Biden’s favor now, too.
The third explanation is Trump’s charge that Biden is feeble-minded. That could boomerang. By setting the bar low, it would be easy for Biden. A success would be just a matter of showing minimal acuity. This gambit was tried against Ronald Reagan, in both 1980 and 1984, and it only took one quip to make the charge look ridiculous—and the proponent appears dishonest.
A fourth explanation is that Trump is a bully. Regardless of what question is asked, he gives a canned answer, and since he has such a strong personality, he’ll just talk over the interviewer, simply ignoring follow-ups, and leading off in his own direction. He’s also physically threatening, as when he cruised, like a shark, behind Hillary in 2016. It’s hard to compete with a person who takes charge of the camera. And with more than 60 appearances in movies and TV, Trump knows how to upstage anyone.
A fifth is that Trump always looks for the most outrageous thing to say. That takes the debate way off the track, making normal topics seem bland. And if the opponent is flummoxed by the claim, that is what the audience will notice. He’s an expert at diversion, such as when we got a bad jobs report, but the news was all about Trump saying he wanted to postpone the election. The topic of the economy was dropped.
The Hill gives us a sixth: that Biden has cultured a “centrist” image, but in order to keep his coalition together, he has actually veered more “leftist.”
Joe Biden is a fraud. The former vice president was nominated and is running under the guise of being a centrist, but he is no such thing. Instead, Biden is promising to “transform the nation” and end the “era of shareholder capitalism.” In a debate, Biden might have to explain those sentiments; almost certainly, independents would run for the hills. . .
As a columnist for the Washington Post noted recently, “Biden is getting more progressive in substance, yet it has done nothing to change his image as a moderate.”
All this assumes that the average citizen cares about issues. Whatever we say, the truth is that we do not. We want a president with whom we can feel comfortable. The public much preferred George Bush, who often came off as incompetent, over the snooty Al Gore, who was reserved and professorial. At the time, the question was, “who would you rather have a beer with.” People couldn’t even imagine Gore drinking a commoner drink, like beer.
Certainly, in 2016, the public preferred the plain (simple) talking Trump over Hillary Clinton, who seemed entitled, assuming she’d win both the nomination and the general election without much effort. She struck us as being like our fourth-grade teacher—a “schoolmarm.” Biden could benefit if he’s seen as the “nice guy” against the hard-charging Trump.
But we’re talking about television. It’s more likely that we would have a replay of 1960, when JFK rode style to the White House. Trump is a polished reality TV star, movie star, wrestling star. He knows how to control the camera and the topic. It would be very hard for Biden to compete with someone who “dominates” the camera.