On Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic will play host to the first 2020 presidential debates. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace will moderate.
It’s true that in years past we haven’t found debates particularly illuminating. Candidates use the platform largely to squeeze in as many campaign platitudes as possible. And there have been more than a share of laughs — Nixon sweating, Reagan’s “There you go again,” Bush checking his watch, etc. — but have we been blown away on the substance, gained any particular insight into the candidates we might have missed? No, not really.
This year, things may be different. And here’s why.
In seasons past, the run-up to the debates tended to be a helter-skelter dash across America, with media spots every few hours. But this time around, one of the candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, has been largely absent on the trail. And it has little to do with COVID-19 since, after all, President Trump, in addition to running the free world, has been playing to back-to-back-to-back crowds.
More specifically, Mr. Biden, after officially starting his sprint to the White House in mid-August has, according to an Associated Press analysis of his schedule, “22 days where he either didn’t make public appearances, held only virtual fundraisers or ventured from his Delaware home solely for church.” By contrast, the same analysis reports Mr. Trump took “24 different trips that took him to 17 different states.”
If you believe, as Mr. Biden’s campaign argues, that he is simply respecting health norms and engaging in extensive “debate prep,” well, there is an abandoned factory in Delaware we’d like to sell you.
What we suspect, and in this a great many Americans agree, is that the 77-year-old Mr. Biden is understandably tired. His mental faculties may be declining — even with reliance on scripted questions and teleprompters, there is noticeable inarticulateness and fatigue. And so the less time he can be taped live, the better. (Why Kamala Harris has, herself, been largely silent is speculation for another day.)
And this, precisely, is why the coming debate may be so interesting. Mr. Biden will have to stand to account for 90 minutes. What the viewer should watch for is not exactly what he says, but how he holds up, physically and mentally. Of course, what he says matters, too, but the six topic choices selected by Mr. Wallace — the Trump and Biden records, the U.S. Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election — leave important subjects like foreign policy, the Russia investigation, education and the weaponization of identity politics off the table.
This is the part where we would, under happier circumstances, urge you to ensure the popcorn is prepped for the main event. But this year feels different. Too much is at stake.