Ladies and gentlemen — tonight we are going to witness the most hotly anticipated TV debate in history. In the red corner, aged 74 and weighing in at 250 pounds, the reigning champ, the tangerine typhoon, Donald J. Truuuuump. In the blue corner, a challenger all the way from planet amnesia, the 77-year-old stuttering cyclone, Joe Robinette Bideeeeen. Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuumble!
Ah, televised presidential debates — exciting, aren’t they? The tension, the massive stakes, the enmity — it’s as close as politics gets to actual entertainment, and people love the idea of them for precisely that reason. Worse is better, these days. We don’t want soaring rhetoric, clashing philosophies, competing visions, Lincoln vs Douglas with brighter lights. That’s boring. What we yearn for is the thrill of the gaffe or the zinger insult, a catastrophic loss of nerve or temper. The excitement over tonight’s event is that, with Trump and Biden, two septuagenarians not fully in control of their mouths, rudeness and brain failures seem almost guaranteed. It will be the demolition derby but with two old guys crashing into each other.
Except it probably won’t. I hate to be a party-pooper, but, after all the hype, presidential debates almost always disappoint. The problem is that, no matter how you bill it, two men standing on a podium arguing about tax and healthcare just isn’t as exhilarating as hand-to-hand combat. Millions will tune in, all over the world, and promptly tune out.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope there are thrills and spills; a jaw-dropping televisual that we’ll all remember forever. Chris Wallace, the moderator, is an intelligent man with a knack from TV theatrics. And the good (and bad) thing about Trump is his utter unpredictability. He could say or do anything. Biden’s uncertain mental state, meanwhile, could keep us gripped.
But the fight-night format invariably flatters to deceive. Let’s just look back to the first TV debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 at Hofstra University. Trump was strangely subdued; he sniffled a lot and seemed to fluff his lines. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was professional, intelligent and efficient. Every fair-minded observer had to admit that, on technical grounds, she was easily the better performer.
The second debate, in St Louis, was more thrilling, largely because of choreography — the ‘town hall’ format, with the candidates walking around each other is always an intriguing spectacle and Trump’s made the now-infamous retort: ‘Because you’d be in jail’, which will go down in television in history. The third debate, however, was more like the first, even if Trump did slightly better — he thews out some choice insults too: he called Clinton a ‘nasty woman’.
The fear among the Trump campaign now is that they have set expectations for Biden’s TV debating ability too low. The truth is, as he showed in the 2008 and 2012 vice-presidential debates, Biden can be a competent if not scintillating debater. As long as he avoids a spectacular senior moment, he will be declared the victor. Democratic pundits will insist it was one of the great performances.
But perhaps it is we the audience who should temper our expectations. American politics may be turning into reality TV, but it isn’t professional wrestling quite yet, and it shouldn’t be. Two old white guys who can’t really string coherent sentences together do not make for thrilling TV, especially not over the course of an hour. It could be a long night.