What should we expect at the first presidential debate?

The first presidential debate will take place on Tuesday. Chris Wallace will be the moderator and sole media participant.

Going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan, incumbent presidents have not done well in first debates. Bill Clinton is the only exception.

I think the problem for incumbents is overconfidence. After four years in office, presidents think they know enough and have enough experience handling questions to get through a debate in good shape. I suspect this overconfidence leads to insufficient preparation.

In addition, incumbents tend not to be used to having their statements challenged. As a result of these factors, incumbents typically struggle under the onslaught of challengers, who typically are desperate.

This year, we have neither a typical incumbent nor a typical challenger. President Trump’s approach to debates doesn’t rely on preparation. He relies less on knowledge of facts than on a combination of sweeping statements with some factual basis, his physical presence, and put downs. He probably can pull these things off in his sleep.

The one topic that I doubt Trump can bluster his way through is the pandemic, for which a segment of approximately 15 minutes will be set aside. I expect Biden to pound Trump on this subject. Undoubtedly, the script has already been prepared for him.

Trump has okay defenses of his handling of the pandemic, but I haven’t heard him blend them into a persuasive case. He usually relies on attacking China and on factually dubious claims about the U.S. is doing in relation to other countries. He’s better, I think, when he talks about the assistance the government provided to New York and about all of the ventilators, masks, etc. produced thanks to his executive orders.

Trump likely will talk about the push to develop a vaccine. I think he needs to be careful here. If he sounds like he’s promising a vaccine by the beginning of November, those who vote at that time will expect delivery.

I expect Trump to go on the attack, citing Biden’s record of dubious pronouncements at the beginning of the pandemic, and I hope he will be ready to attack the Obama administration’s pandemic responses and preparedness. This approach is promising. However, because Trump was the president, not Biden, it might not be good enough unless Trump does an effective job of explaining the administration’s response and of showing empathy.

Biden, for his part, is no more the typical challenger than Trump is the typical incumbent. Biden is not (and never was) as sharp as Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, and Walter Mondale were.

However, he will be assisted by low expectations. Claims that he suffers from advanced dementia lower the bar considerably.

It’s possible that Biden lacks the mental capacity to debate competently. However, this was not the case earlier in the year when he debated his Democratic rivals. Most of these debates weren’t one-on-one affairs, but his last one, against Bernie Sanders, was.

Unless Biden has deteriorated appreciably since that debate in March, we shouldn’t count on an incompetent performance. And as I said, the bar has been set rather low for him.

This year is also different from most recent elections involving an incumbent because this year, the incumbent trails in the polls. Reagan, Bush 43, and Obama all could afford a bad first debate (Bush 41 couldn’t, and he lost). It’s doubtful that Trump has much of a margin for error.

Perhaps Biden simply won’t be capable of hanging in there with Trump, but relying on the other guy to be terrible is not a good approach to any contest. If Biden isn’t terrible, Trump may have to be at his best, especially when discussing the coronavirus.