Democratic insiders dish on what to expect from Biden during his first debate with Trump

  • Joe Biden and President Donald Trump will meet for their first debate on September 29 in Cleveland against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, the worst economy in decades, and months of racial justice protests.
  • Democratic strategists told Insider they’re confident Biden won’t take the bait if Trump attacks him on his age and mental fitness.
  • Instead, they say, Biden should avoid mudslinging and instead focus on the economy, Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and his reported disparaging remarks on veterans. 
  • ‘Trump will want to talk about the economy or what it was or what he dreamt it was,’ former Obama White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley said. ‘And Biden has to say, we are in this crisis because of the pandemic.’
  • 'I hope I don’t get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that’s the only place he’s comfortable,' Biden said at a fundraiser on Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Democrat Joe Biden will face the most important audience of his political career when he and President Donald Trump meet for the first presidential debate on September 29. 

The two men will clash against the backdrop of national malaise: a deadly pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States, months of racial justice protests, and the worst economy since the Great Recession.

Viewers might be watching for who of the two oldest presidential nominees would stumble on the way to the podium or for verbal gaffes at the debate to be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

But several Democratic insiders who have worked close to Biden or who are familiar with his style said they were confident he would avoid taking Trump's bait on his age and mental fitness. Instead, Biden will aim to stick Trump with the heft of a devastated economy and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

"It's the pandemic, stupid," said Bill Daley, who was chief of staff to President Barack Obama, putting a contemporary spin on the phrase coined by Democratic consultant James Carville while working for Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992.

"You see in other parts of the world the economy is coming back better than ours… because they are addressing the pandemic in a different way," Daley told Insider. "And that's the whole game. Trump will want to talk about the economy or what it was or what he dreamt it was, and Biden has to say 'we are in this crisis because of the pandemic.'"

At least one strategist suggested Biden try to agitate Trump by questioning his intelligence, but most caution against mudslinging.  

With less than five weeks before Election Day on November 3, the first debate will be crucial viewing for independents and undecided voters — particularly in several hotly contested states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio  — and will garner millions of viewers. 

It will be a key opportunity for Biden to re-introduce himself to Americans, many of whom only know the CliffsNotes version of Biden's political career, said Daley, who also served as Commerce Secretary in the Clinton administration.

'Joe makes gaffes. Trump just lies.' 

Daley, who helped Democrat Al Gore prepare for his 2000 presidential debates, said Biden shouldn't react to Trump's attacks, should leave the fact-checking to the moderators, and avoid being pulled into the president's "game" of turning any event into a tv-style "showpiece."

"If the moderators don't pin him down, Biden sure won't be able to," Daley said. "He's just gotta be himself. For good, bad or indifferent. Joe makes gaffes. Trump just lies. Big difference between the two."

Biden's camp has stayed mum on his preparations for debating a political rival known for name-calling and inaccurate statements, and who has repeatedly questioned the Democratic nominee's mental and physical acuity. 

But on Thursday, the Democratic nominee hinted at how he'd approach his Republican rival, acknowledging he expects Trump to say "awful things about me and my family," according to the Associated Press. 

"I hope I don't take the bait," Biden said during a fundraiser. "I hope I don't get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that's the only place he's comfortable."

Few details are known about how Trump, who infamously called Hillary Clinton a "nasty woman" during a 2016 debate, is preparing this time around.  Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh acknowledged to Insider that Biden's more than four decades in politics might make him "good at debating."

In addition to the September 29 debate, two others are scheduled: on October 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville. 

The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Biden's running mate Kamala Harris is set for October 7 at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The Democratic strategists agree it's Biden's debate to lose: he doesn't have to do much but highlight the multiple crises happening on Trump's watch. 

"You've got to remember why we're here. We've got COVID-19. We've got unprecedented economic problems, and we've got a continued rash of police shootings. And he screwed up all three," Pete Giangreco, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on both Obama presidential campaigns, said of Trump.

Biden could pivot to any of those issues whenever he's faced with hard questions at the debate, he said.

"A tough question becomes a real chance for him to reframe the debate, and the debate comes down to this: this guy's incompetent. He blew the virus. He blew the economy, and the civil unrest is on his watch and he's only made it worse," Giangreco said. "If he does those three things, he's going to win the debate." 

Daley said Biden must speak directly to voters, not to the president when debating him.

"That will be the kind of the North Star of the whole evening … 'I'm talking to the American people. I'm not talking to this guy over there'," Daley said.

Let Trump 'do a lot of talking'

One strategist said Biden would do well to let Trump talk on and on. That will inevitably lead to a verbal disaster of the president's own making, she predicted.

"If Biden does a great job at poking the bear, at bringing up some of the quotes and really egregious things he [Trump] has said, specifically around the veterans, I think that that is really going to open up a can of worms," said Aisha Mills, a Democratic political strategist whose name is being floated as an adviser for Biden if he wins the White House. "Trump will walk himself into circles and his own disaster."

Last week, The Atlantic reported that Trump had disparaged service members killed in action as "losers" and "suckers." The president has denied making those statements, although they mirror remarks he made publicly about the late GOP Sen. John McCain. Other news outlets have corroborated The Atlantic's reporting. 

Mills, who is the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, said Biden should avoid character attacks because they don't necessarily work.

"People still like him," she said of Trump.

Instead, she added, Biden should let the attributes he's best known for — compassion and empathy — come through.

Biden "does best when he focuses on lives lost, whether it be veterans, COVID, issues like the economy — unemployment is a disaster — right now the highest it's been in a generation," Mills said.

The Biden campaign would not comment on what's to be expected from the former vice president during the first debate. But his actions and words over the past month, and a marked increase in travel show he is zeroing in on key battleground states and focusing on the economy, job creation, and the pandemic. After Trump held a rally on September 8 in North Carolina, Biden knocked the president's visit with a statement reminding voters there of Trump's "mismanagement" of the pandemic.

"He has looked away from North Carolinians in need of a lifeline, even as his wealthy corporate donors get ahead," Biden said in a statement released the day of Trump's visit. "As President, I will fight for your family like it's my own. I will bring our country together to defeat this pandemic and build our economy back better so that it works for all North Carolinians and leaves no one behind."  

Without divulging the details of the president's debate planning, Trump campaign spokesman Murtaugh told Insider that Trump could knock Biden on his adoption of ideas pushed by the Democratic Party's left wing.

"Joe Biden came through about a dozen Democrat primary debates in fine fashion and has been a Washington politician for 47 years. He's good at debating and knows what he's doing," Murtaugh said in a statement. "His problem is going to be defending the far-left agenda he's carrying, like promising to raise taxes by $4 trillion, giving work permits to illegal aliens, and dumping the job-killing regulations of the Green New Deal on every person, business, and building in America."

Raleigh, North Carolina-based political strategist Gary Pearce said he sees similarities between this year's election and the 1980 presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The economy, too, was tanking. And the Iranian hostage crisis was dragging along.  

"It strikes me he's in a very similar position to Reagan in 1980, where people are clearly looking for a new president or are open to a new president," Pearce said of Biden. "And they're just asking one question: Can this guy do the job?"  

A show of confidence on the debate stage will make a difference in who tilts undecided viewers.

"The person who looks most comfortable and confident and in command is the one who wins the debate," Pearce said. "I mean, that was really true of Reagan. And it was true for Obama."

 

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