Presidential debates are rarely won or lost on points. The candidates who prevail are usually the ones who deliver the right line at the right moment and, in so doing, frame the discourse not just on the debate stage but for the rest of the campaign.
Joe Biden needs to remember that when he faces Donald Trump tonight in the first presidential debate of the fall campaign.
Trump’s in trouble—down in the polls and recently exposed as even more of a fraud than his critics imagined—and he will hit the debate stage with a vengeance, where he will attack and he will distract. But Biden can be smart about this and harness Trump’s energy, turning the president’s offensive against him.
Ronald Reagan was a master of this. The 40th president understood the political potency of a barb delivered with a smile at precisely the point when the audience is paying attention. In the second presidential debate of 1980, Reagan tripped up President Jimmy Carter’s line of attack on Medicare issues with the sly line, “There you go again.” But Reagan was even more memorable in 1984 when, in answer to a question about whether at 73 he might be a bit old for a second term, the wily Republican replied, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That got a laugh from former vice president Walter Mondale, the man Reagan would defeat a few weeks later in a 49-state landslide.
Rivals called Reagan “glib.” Perhaps. Yet, as a candidate who was often underestimated, he secured the 1980 Republican presidential nomination and swept to two general election victories at least in part on the strength of strikingly effective performances in key debates.
That’s a lesson that Biden—who like Reagan in 1980 is challenging a vulnerable incumbent president—can take from the historical presidential debates as he steps onto the stage tonight at Case Western University.
The Democratic nominee for president need only read the headlines and listen to what people are talking about (and to what comedians are joking about) in order to frame his remarks in such a way that will rise above Trump’s chaos strategy and deliver a message everyone will “get.” Biden knows full well that Democrats, Republicans, and the handful of remaining “swing” voters are absorbing the blockbuster New York Times report on Trump’s decades of business failures, financial manipulations, and, above all, tax avoidance. As CNN Brian Stelter wisely observed, “The New York Times’ coverage of Trump’s taxes is an emperor-has-no-clothes moment.”
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“This is the kind of information that we are going to be hearing about for days and weeks to come—and including on the debate stage in front of 60, 70, 80 million people on Tuesday night,” says Stelter. “No doubt Joe Biden will be studying this New York Times story and thinking about how to bring it up in the debate.”
That’s more of a challenge than it might seem. Biden’s an experienced politician, and he’s more than held his own in debates with Republicans as distinct as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former speaker of the House and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. But during the 2020 Democratic nomination race, he was often knocked off message by fellow debaters, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Senator Kamala Harris—his eventual running mate. Trump knows this, and he’ll be aiming for every vulnerability, just as he did with his Republican rivals and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In this debate, however, Biden has everything he needs to upend Trump. The tax story already has the president screaming “fake news” and overcompensating. That gives Biden an opening that the Democrat can seize. He doesn’t have to be sanctimonious; he doesn’t have to over-talk things; and he certainly doesn’t have to neglect other vital issues, ranging from Covid-19 to the Supreme Court to racial justice to the climate crisis. All Biden has to do, at the proper moment, is highlight the stark injustice of a president whose recent tax payments have been lower than those paid by individual workers making $18,000 a year.
In other words, Biden’s got a chance for a mic drop moment.
The best way to achieve it is by focusing on something every working American will understand: the absurdity of a self-proclaimed billionaire paying just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. That would be troublesome at any time. But it’s infuriating when Trump and his Republican allies have stalled a desperately needed stimulus package to help working people survive the mass unemployment and underemployment that have resulted from Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s campaign has already been making this point, with a video released early Monday that juxtaposes the Times report with examples of what essential workers actually chip in to fund the government. “typical income tax: Elementary School Teacher $7,239…Firefighter $5,283…Registered Nurse $10,216,” goes the message. “federal income tax paid: Donald Trump $750.”
The campaign has also produced buttons and stickers that read, “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump.”
If a tax policy debate breaks out tonight, Biden can borrow a few lines from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren regarding our rigged system. He can echo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s concerns about the national security risks that arise with a debt-burdened president. He can speak about his own campaign’s long-standing commitments to cap itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans and to restore the top-bracket 39.6 percent personal income tax—which was lowered to 37 percent in 2017 by Trump and his Republican allies. He can even highlight the Democratic platform’s pledge to
reform the tax code to be more progressive and equitable, and reduce barriers for working families to benefit from targeted tax breaks, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Our program of reform will provide immediate, marked relief for working families, including more generous, refundable tax credits to benefit low- and middle-income families, and easier and more equitable access to tax provisions that help working families build wealth, including by equalizing tax benefits for retirement contributions and providing more accessible tax breaks for home ownership.
With more than enough ammunition to deploy, Biden can afford to let Trump make his desperate excuses and his even more desperate attacks.
There will come a moment, the right moment, when the Democratic nominee can say, “Speaking of tax credits, I want to propose tonight that we provide an immediate tax credit of $750 to every American who pays more than that amount in taxes.”
Then he can drop the mic.