The 2020 debates

Yesterday’s Washington Post article about top Biden adviser Ron Klain contained this passage:

Klain has developed a specialized role as the Democrats’ preeminent coach for presidential debates. He worked on debate preparations for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Gore in 2000, and he has led the debate prep for every Democratic nominee since — John F. Kerry, Obama, Hillary Clinton and Biden.

Klain’s debate rules for candidates, versions of which long ago became public, have been a mainstay of both party’s strategies for these presidential matchups. . .“A stumble, fumble, or gaffe can cost you a debate, right up to the last second,” he wrote in one memo that became public. “But while you can lose a debate at any point, you can only win a debate in the first twenty minutes.”

(Emphasis added)

I think there’s wisdom in this. When I write about these debates, I always judge them in their entirety. But I’ve long suspected that, for the electorate as whole, the first half hour or less makes the difference. (The reason why a debate can be lost through a gaffe right up until the end is not so much because of the impression it makes at the time, but because the gaffe will be played up after the debate.)

In two of this year’s debates — the second presidential debate and the vice presidential debate — the opening topic was the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. In the first presidential debate, Chris Wallace turned the debate to the pandemic at about the 16 minute mark. (He led off with the Amy Barrett nomination, probably a last minute decision driven by the news.)

This made it virtually impossible for the Republican nominee to win the debate. There was no way to make the pandemic a winning issue for the administration in power. Not with more than 200,000 deaths, and new cases on the rise.

This doesn’t mean that Biden and Harris were destined to win the debate over the pandemic, and arguably they didn’t win it, at least not in all three debates. It does mean that only Biden/Harris had the opportunity to win the debate, at least under Klain’s very realistic view of how these debates are judged by the public.

I thought Trump blew the first debate by being too Trumpian. I thought Trump won the second debate and that Pence won his. However, in both of these debates it seemed to me that the opposition had the better of it in the opening stage, when the coronavirus was the topic.

In bringing up the pandemic so early in the debates, were the moderators trying to stack the deck against Trump/Pence? I doubt that Chris Wallace was. As noted, the pandemic was not his first topic. And given the importance of the issue, it was natural that the virus would come up early in the first debate.

I’m more suspicious of the decision to make the pandemic Topic A in the next two debates, especially the third. By then, with nothing new to say, this smacked of beating a dead horse. By then, the moderators could tell, if was not intuitively obvious all along, that the GOP ticket was at its shakiest on this issue.

The decision to again bring the virus front and center in the third debate was accompanied by the decision not to make foreign policy an issue at all. Trump was permitted to wedge the Biden family’s dealings with China into the debate. But never, in any of the debates, was there a discussion of foreign policy. That’s a disgrace.

I conclude that, collectively, the three debate moderators tried (and probably succeeded) in tipping the scales for Biden/Harris through a combination of the way they moderated the back and forth (mainly in Wallace’s case) and their choice of topics (mainly in the other two debates).

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