News World Should Joe Biden turn the other cheek to Donald Trump’s verbal blows? No debate needed
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Should Joe Biden turn the other cheek to Donald Trump’s verbal blows? No debate needed

The US election is shaping up to be contentious – and debate night is a crucial stage in the fight. Photo: TND
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Joe Biden’s advisers are said to be worried he’s going to lose his cool and start brawling with President Donald Trump at their first presidential debate tomorrow night.

We can only hope.

Political observers have come to view US presidential debates like gymnastics routines at the Olympics. Miss that landing or fall off that beam and four years of work are out the window.

By this logic, Richard Nixon lost in 1960 because he looked like he needed a shave during his debate against JFK, and George HW Bush sealed his fate in 1992 when he looked at his watch while debating Bill Clinton.

This high-stakes performance anxiety is torqued beyond recognition this year by nervous Democrats who, sensing victory, are terrified that the 77-year-old Biden might muff his chances – either by looking a bit doddering or going full pig-wrestle with the First Swine.

These advisers want Mr Biden to focus on his plans, to stand and deliver in noble contrast to the sputtering bully, to embody the role of compassionate statesman.

It’s the safe way to go—too safe, if what Mr Biden wants is to put himself closer to the White House.

These events, after all, are not “debates.” They are 90 minutes of panning for soundbite gold.

Kamala Harris’s brief presidential campaign, for example, is remembered only for her Democratic debate zinger at Mr Biden over 1970s school busing.

How did he respond? No one remembers; that’s not the point.

Mr Biden goes into Tuesday’s debate already perceived as a good guy. It’s an advantage he doesn’t need to polish.

Unlike past years, there are relatively few undecided voters left, and everything from violent protests to a Supreme Court Justice vacancy – and Sunday’s pick for replacement announcement – have done little to move the polling needle.

Mr Biden still enjoys a roughly 7 per cent nationwide lead – one he’s had since late spring in the US. It’s closer in the swing states, but holding.

Mr Trump, on the other hand, is desperate to claw his way back, but his power to shock has waned over five years’ worth of outrages.

So he will have to work harder to deliver something memorable (though he will no doubt try), and it will almost certainly be brutal, cruel and humiliating. This is his last chance to break through.

I went back and watched the 2016 presidential debates.

Hillary Clinton was a study in rectitude, sticking to her numbing talking points while Mr Trump assailed her record, her honesty and her husband. At one point, he declared, “She has hate in her heart.”

Rather than erupt in righteous rage at such a cheap shot, Ms Clinton stared ahead, her face a rictus of astonishing discipline.

It’s the same strategy Mr Biden’s advisers are suggesting he follow. And look where that got Hillary.

So who among us, schooled in the menschness of Joe Biden, would begrudge him if, in the midst of some Trump fusillade, he channels his inner Clint Eastwood, looks at Mr Trump and says, “Tell me something. Why do you keep kissing Vladimir Putin’s ass?”

Not the customary language of diplomacy, but something everyone home on their couch has wondered, too.

Or perhaps, when it comes to Mr Trump’s coronavirus response, tell him directly, “You play a lot of bad golf, so let me speak in a language you’ll understand: when it comes to this virus, you choked. And the whole world knows it.”

I could go on, but you get the point: Mr Trump can’t be fought by the old rules, but he doesn’t have to be fought with his rules.

His reign of error has shown that he cannot bear ridicule, mockery and confrontation.

(As psychologist Richard Friedman noted in the New York Times, Mr Trump has avoided the White House Correspondents Dinner for years so as not to endure their ribbing).

Mr Trump derails when he is challenged, as was evident in his disastrous town hall a few weeks back when he was called out on his eternal promise to deliver a health care proposal “in two weeks”.

If this president’s tragic, terrible rule has wrought anything good, it is that the numbing formality of political discourse has been changed forever.

No one is better than Mr Biden to deliver the sort of plain-spoken punches that millions have wanted to throw at Mr Trump since 2015.

So if that’s brawling, I say bring it on. The American people will be grateful, and they won’t forget.

Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America

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