It’s finally happened. We literally can’t be in the same room anymore. Owing to the shambolic incompetence of the “nonpartisan” debate commission whose panicked and knee-jerk reaction to make the debate that was to happen Thursday night virtual, we will have no debate at all.
Setting aside the fact that President Donald Trump is now recovered from COVID-19 and there is no reason the in-person debate couldn’t happen, the result will now be dueling town halls. One for Trump, one for Joe Biden, with the former on NBC, the later on ABC, and they will happen at the same time.
So much of this election has been about form, rather than ideas or even the personalities of the candidates, both of whom are well known to the American people. Think back to conventions, with the Democrats’ ultra-virtual production, ever mindful of the presence of the Chinese virus. The Republicans held a much more live event, defiant of the virus, even. Now, we must once again gear up for offsetting spectacles.
If past is prologue, we will see two very different events Thursday night. Joe Biden’s town halls have been like elementary school kickball games, questions gently rolled to Joe by supposedly undecided or neutral voters. In fact, as we learned last time Biden held a town hall, many of these people were Biden supporters. But it really doesn’t matter. That’s because as he has shown with court packing, Biden is perfectly comfortable simply refusing to answer any tough questions even when a voter or journalist has the temerity to ask him one.
Trump town halls have been the opposite; they are fiery and feisty affairs. Trump enjoys answering questions, even the tough ones that his advisers often wish he would skirt. His answers aren’t always great, sometimes they seems contradictory or off the cuff, but you always know you’re hearing exactly what Trump thinks at any given moment.
The obvious complication with running competing town halls side by side is that nobody will be able to watch both at the same time. While there will no doubt be some hard core political junkies who record one or the other and watch both, for most Americans this will be a binary choice. There will be a ratings war of course, with which ever side fares better boasting about it, but no matter who racks up more eyeballs, both candidates will be speaking more or less to the already converted, their own supporters tuning in.
So the real war will be for viral moments coming out of the segregated events. In a just world, Biden would confront questions not only his refusal to say no to court packing, but now also about the New York Post’s stunning revelation that Hunter Biden introduced his dad, then the vice president, to a Ukrainian business associate, all while Biden still claims he never talked to Hunter about his business dealings.
If these questions come up at all, and they may well not, expect Biden to do his very best tap dancing in deflecting them. It’s actually the Republicans packing the court, he will absurdly claim, or tell us that claims about Hunter Biden are just a right-wing conspiracy. What Trump is losing by not being in the room, or on the screen with Biden is the ability to press the former vice president on these questions. But that is exactly what Trump should be doing in his own event.
If Sleepy Joe is set to use his town hall to try to put his scandals to bed then Donald Trump will be poking them with sticks, waking them up, forcing them into the national conversation. Here Trump has a bit of an advantage because Biden’s anodyne, prepackaged town halls just aren’t very good television compared to Trump’s wild and unpredictable style. Trump should be capable of crafting the “big moments” that will be talked about Friday; he needs those moments to be effective and damaging attacks on Biden.
It is telling that in the politics of 2020 amid our pandemic and our severe distaste for one another, we literally cannot have political debates. But that doesn’t mean that Thursday night won’t matter.
Both camps have opportunities. For Biden, the path is perhaps easier. As usual he just needs to get through it unscathed without making much news. For Trump, the task is harder but comes with a bigger upside. With court packing and Hunter Biden mischief teed up for him, Trump needs to drop some rhetorical hammers.
This is a new kind of political playing field. Who can use it to the best advantage? Only time will tell.