How is Joe Biden going to combat the Trump lie machine?
Joe Biden was fed up. "Stop talking about how you care about people," he snapped at his opponent. "Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility."
It was the night of Oct. 11, 2012; his sparring partner was Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Remembered today as the malarkey debate — Biden's jeer of "with all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey" being the soundbite of the night — President Barack Obama's second decisively snickered, scoffed, and steamrolled his way to victory. "He was priest to [Ryan's] flummoxed altar boy, scoutmaster to Ryan's nervous, tongue-tied knot-tier. His smile veered ... between amused and condescending, depending on the honey or vinegar with which he referred to Ryan as 'my friend,'" Vanity Fair breathlessly recapped.
But facing President Trump on Tuesday in the first of three presidential debates will be the biggest night of Biden's political career. It will also be the trickiest. How, after all, do you have a debate with someone who's made at least 20,055 false or misleading claims since taking office — an average of nearly 16 lies a day? How Biden answers that question could be the most important takeaway of the entire debate, the difference between proving Trump's claims about his sharpness right, and landing a rare and bruising blow on the bully-in-chief.
History shows that incumbent presidents tend to do more poorly than their challengers in first debates, perhaps owing to misplaced overconfidence (Obama's performance against Mitt Romney the week prior to the malarkey debate was widely considered "abysmal"). Certainly Democrats might feel encouraged by Trump's reportedly lackadaisical debate prep. But Trump is not a typical opponent either; he resorts to personal attacks and physical intimidation, even bragging in one 2016 primary debate about the size of his genitalia. Unlike 2016, though, when candidates still had the capacity to be blindsided by Trump's lack of debate decorum, "everybody knows" who the president is now, a former Biden staffer told Fox News; Democrats are "fully aware of how he operates and that he likes to lob insults and bait people by stating things that are not true." Who has the upper hand going into Tuesday night is a bit of a mystery to aides on both sides; is it Trump, for throwing out the playbook of civil conduct, or Biden, who's able to brace for it?
Complicating matters for Biden is that Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, who is moderating Tuesday's debate, says he will not be fact-checking the candidates in real-time. "My job is to be as invisible as possible," he explained Sunday. That leaves Trump an opening to repeat lies about the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19, to push unfounded conspiracies about Biden's son, Hunter Biden, and to stoke fears about the supposed anarchy in American cities. One approach, then, might be for Biden to play the fact-checker himself, preparing for the sure-to-be-repeated falsehoods with zingers that refute them. A number of writers have tried their hand at crafting examples, with The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart offering: "You're a liar. At least 204,000 Americans are dead, and about 26 million Americans are claiming unemployment insurance because you intentionally lied about how dangerous the coronavirus is. You told The Post's Bob Woodward how serious this pandemic would be and how it would spread, and you did nothing." Axios has already confirmed that Biden "plans to challenge Trump on any falsehoods" but "won't spend the whole debate playing fact-checker." Picking his battles, then, will be key.
A wordless fact-check could be even more effective. In Biden's debate against Ryan, he utilized the split screen and "could be seen grinning, chuckling, shaking his head, throwing his hands to the skies, or hanging his head in exaggerated disbelief, a widely varying sequence of gestures that all amounted to 'can you believe this guy?,'" The Guardian reports. Similar acts of open disbelief — rather than moral outrage — could defuse some of Trump's attacks, and likely wouldn't risk backfiring as being "disrespectful," as some argued it was in 2012 (Trump having dragged us long ago into a post-respect world). Biden's aides' biggest worry instead seems to be the former VP's quick temper and tendency to lash out, particularly when it comes to matters about his family, but Biden at least knows that Trump is going to try to bait him into a gaffe; conversely, keeping calm and treating Trump as a joke could get under the thin skin of the president and provoke him into looking riled, insecure, and weak.
The best move of all, though, might be demonstrating Trump wrong — live. The president has repeatedly written Biden off as incoherent and cognitively impaired, bizarrely claiming his opponent is taking performance-enhancing drugs and mocking him as being "a dumb guy." This strategy, though, has already failed Trump once; Biden's widely-praised Democratic National Convention speech might have actually benefited from Trump's attacks. As CNN's Brian Stelter wrote in his Reliable Sources newsletter at the time, "Did any of the Fox viewers who have been told, over and over again, that Biden is just a human blooper reel ... a man who can't string a full sentence together ... were any of them surprised by his passionate, articulate acceptance speech?" Those same viewers, who've also been told Biden is hiding in a basement, could be surprised again on Tuesday night. By keeping a level head on the debate stage, Biden can once more leverage Trump's attacks to exceed the low-bar expectations that have been set for him, claiming a victory merely by proving he's mentally sound.
Needless to say, for the second time in his life, Biden is going to have to look his opponent in the eye across the stage and demand, "show me." But this time, he need not expect an answer. Rather, how exactly Biden goes about crying "malarkey" is the big question of the debate — maybe even bigger than if either candidate manages to swing the few undecided voters with their words.
Because if one thing is for sure, it is that there will be a whole lot of malarkey.