Investor Alert

Sept. 30, 2020, 4:01 p.m. EDT

Biden missed an opportunity in Tuesday’s debate — here’s a winning tactic for next time

The former vice president shouldn’t play it safe. He ought to argue Trump is a failed president

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By Chris Edelson

Getty Images
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

President Trump on Tuesday night reminded Americans that he’s unafraid to dominate his opponent and lower political discourse.

He managed to repeatedly insult Joe Biden, who responded with a few barbs of his own. Trump even sent what appeared to be a message of solidarity to the white supremacist Proud Boys group.

Trump’s assertion at the end of the debate about the election being fraudulent made clear that he knows he’s losing. Those were not the words of a confident incumbent who expects to win, but of a desperate man hoping to convince his supporters that, if he loses, it can only be because shadowy, unnamed forces stole the election from him.

Read: Protect the economy or the population? The coronavirus dilemma facing governments as protests escalate

Some analysts have suggested there should be no more debates — that last night’s debate only degraded our democracy — and Biden should not take part in another spectacle.

I disagree. The debate was a missed opportunity for Biden, and he should be ready to seize it next time.

From Biden’s perspective, the debate is not likely to matter. He is ahead in polls, and Trump needs to do something to win new voters to his side. It’s unlikely that happened Tuesday night. But Biden shouldn’t be content with playing it safe — anything can happen in politics.

We hear a lot about Trump’s unpredictability, but in many ways he’s predictable. He will lie, insult his opponent and attempt to get more air time. This is to be expected, regardless of the debate format. (The second presidential debate will have a townhall format, while the third will have a format similar to Tuesday night’s.)

Biden surely knew this was coming, but he wasn’t ready. His performance, filled with statistics, was largely flat.

Here’s how Biden can be ready next time:

­• When Trump launches into a bullying routine, Biden could turn to him and say: “Donald, you’ve gone through your whole life pushing people around, putting them down, bullying them. It ends here. This isn’t an elementary school playground. You sit in the office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan and Eisenhower. I know you can’t really hear yourself anymore, but the rest of us do — the people watching do. You’re embarrassing yourself, and, even worse, you’re embarrassing our country.”

• When Trump falsely claims that mail-in ballots make the election illegitimate, Biden could say: “Donald, you’re losing — you know you’re losing — but when you lose this election, it won’t be because anyone stole it from you. It will be because you’re a failed president. You’re just not up to the job. We can do better, and we will do better. I will be president for all Americans. With you, there’s only one person who really matters: Donald Trump.”

• When Trump falsely claims he saved lives in responding to the pandemic and Biden would have done worse, Biden could say: “With this guy, it’s always someone else’s fault. He’s never taken responsibility for anything in his entire life. When his businesses failed, he stiffed the creditors and the contractors. Donald, this isn’t a reality TV show. As Harry Truman said, ‘the buck stops here’ — that means the buck stops with you. Your words and your actions matter, and real people’s lives are at stake. The reality is this: More than 200,000 Americans are dead in the past six months. That’s more people than have died in any other country in the world from this pandemic. You didn’t cause the pandemic, but you had a chance to limit its devastation — and you failed.”

• When Trump suggests he should get a pass when it comes to the economy because of the pandemic, Biden could respond in this way (as suggested by Rex Nutting’s recent piece): “You lucked into a strong and growing economy in 2017. Unemployment and inflation were both low. But you squandered it. Instead of making sure the economy would be prepared for the inevitable challenges that always arise, your huge tax giveaways to the wealthy left us with huge deficits and less ability to respond to the downturn associated with the pandemic. Your failed response to the pandemic means the economy can’t be fully open for business. Here’s what your record looks like now: More than 20 million Americans who want to work but can’t, GDP below where it was at the start of the year, unemployment was at 4.7% when you took office, now it’s over 8% . Those are the facts, and none of your dodges or lies can change this.”

• Finally, when Trump claims to be a “law and order” president, Biden could simply ask: Can you tell me again how many people from your campaign and your administration went to jail ?

Trump is a walking, talking case against his own presidency. In some ways, simply letting him speak is the beginning of a debate strategy.

But it’s not enough. We all know the advice when it comes to bullies: You have to stand up to them. Biden has surely faced some bullies in his life. He’d do well to remember this lesson as he prepares for the next two debates with Trump.

Chris Edelson is a columnist for MarketWatch. He is an assistant professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisEdelson.

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