The pressure had never been higher for Joe Biden not to fuck up.
It was October 2012, one week after a disastrous performance by President Barack Obama in his inaugural debate against Republican rival Mitt Romney had Democrats in near-hysterics. The president had come across as aloof, professorial, and disengaged in front of an audience of 67 million people—and it had cost him dearly. A Gallup poll released five days afterwards found that 72 percent of debate watchers believed Romney was the clear winner, with only 20 percent believing that Obama had won. It was the widest margin of victory for any presidential debate in Gallup history, and national polls in an already close election immediately swung in Romney’s favor.
Now, it was up to the Obama administration’s most gaffe-prone member to keep the ship from going down.
“Obama was just so limp and passive that I think the show of getting up off the mat and fighting, that was 100 percent what Biden was trying to do,” said Michael Steel, who served as press secretary to Paul Ryan, then the Republican vice presidential nominee, and was part of the small team of staffers who prepped him for his face-off with Biden. “And he did.”
Biden, in short, crushed it. Where Obama had pretended that the split-screen didn’t exist, spending much of the debate looking down at his notes, the vice president hammed it up: he chuckled, laughed, and smiled almost as constantly as he interrupted his opponent—roughly 82 times in all, according to a peevish Republican tally afterwards—throwing Ryan off his game within minutes.
“I think his passion came through. He cares about these issues, you could feel it,” then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said at the time. Van Hollen, who played the role of Ryan in Biden’s debate prep, pointed to Biden’s earthy realness—and the debut of his now iconic exclamation “malarkey!”—as an antidote to the lackluster performance at the top of the ticket.
“Normal people react to those kinds of things,” Van Hollen said.
Biden’s debate performance, described at the time by The Guardian as “part angry bar-room debater, part condescending elder uncle, part comic mime artist,” was lauded as a desperately needed victory for the Obama campaign, halting Romney’s rise in the polls in time to tee up the president for a pair of come-from-behind wins in the final two presidential debates.
Eight years later, Biden’s supporters—and detractors—are looking to that debate, as well as his 2008 matchup against former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, for clues about how he’ll handle future clashes with President Donald Trump, who is chomping at the bit to debate Biden face to face.
“If it’s a ‘Good Biden’ day, we’ll see a repeat of 2012 or 2008,” said one Democratic strategist who advised a rival primary campaign this cycle. “If it’s a ‘Bad Biden’ day, we’ll get a repeat of any one of the half-a-dozen Democratic primary debates where he essentially disappeared.”
Biden’s team hopes that he can repeat his thwarting of the expectations game—while Trump’s re-election campaign is publicly banking on Biden coming off as, well, sleepy. Trump, who has pointedly avoided committing to participating in any of this fall’s debates, has in recent weeks attempted to refocus the campaign conversation on the false notion that Biden is afraid to debate him, and to bait Biden into accepting more debates this fall—part of a broader strategy of questioning the former vice president’s stamina and mental acuity, most recently by making the baseless claim that questions at a recent press conference were pre-screened.
“Now he’s already saying that he can’t do debates because of COVID. Do you believe it? ‘I can’t do the debates because of COVID,’” Trump falsely quoted Biden as saying last Thursday during a Fox News town hall event with host Sean Hannity, saying that he’d “just heard a little inkling of it two days ago.”
Given the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on traditional campaign events and on the Democratic National Convention in August, the debates present singularly important opportunities for both candidates to make their case to the public—or to upend Biden’s increasingly wide lead over the president in the polls. Trump’s campaign has clearly made the calculation that Biden will not be a strong debater come this fall, or that the conspicuous haughtiness of calling for additional debates will engender concern about his mental faculties among swing voters who think that the former vice president may be too old.
But former campaign advisers, debate experts and staffers for his fallen debate opponents told The Daily Beast that Biden is nothing like the clown car of Republicans whom Trump faced in 2016, and is much better positioned to come across as authentic and personable than Hillary Clinton did in her trio of debates that fall. Biden, whose political brand is rooted in interpersonal connection with voters, is at his strongest when he can showcase his empathy, an emotion that Trump has struggled to display in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic calamity and racial unrest.
“Joe Biden is a passionate person, and he, one of the reasons I love him, wears his heart on his sleeve,” former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who played Palin during debate prep sessions against Biden in 2008, told The American Prospect ahead of his matchup with Ryan.
“Especially in a town hall setting, where he gets to interact face-to-face… with actual voters, JRB has still got that authenticity, in a way that other 2020 candidates way younger than him never did,” said one Biden campaign adviser, using a common internal nickname for Joseph Robinette Biden. “Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t spoken to a non-toadie since the 1980s. He’s incapable of relating to any human, much less a stranger.”
Biden’s former staffers have frequently described the former senator and vice president as well-informed, well-prepared, and well-versed in the minutiae of government—all valuable skills in any debate. The former veep’s approach to debate prep, according to those close to the Bidens, leans more heavily on cramming with briefing books than doing mock debate sessions with a stand-in opponent.
His occasional hamminess, too—once considered a mixed blessing when advisers feared he would come across as a bully in his 2008 debate against Palin—is this time seen as a major benefit against an opponent who never misses an opportunity to puff himself up.
“He’s maybe the only person who thrives under the spotlight as much as Trump,” a former longtime staffer in Biden’s Senate office said.
Debate historians told The Daily Beast that Trump’s attempts to pack the debate schedule—his campaign has called for Biden to agree to six debates, twice as many as usual—may reveal more of a weakness in Trump’s memory than Biden’s.
“He shines in that two-person setting and really struggles in a big group,” said Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus at Northeastern University and the author of several books on the history of modern presidential debates. “If the Trump campaign is looking at the primary debates as the basis for this theory that Biden isn’t up to the job, they really need to review the one-on-ones… because, of course, that’s the format with Trump.”
Schroeder told The Daily Beast that Biden’s string of “particularly weak” performances during the 2020 Democratic primaries may have lulled the Trump campaign into forgetting that his decades-long career in the U.S. Senate has made him “very effective” in two-candidate debates, as evidenced by his final debate performance of this cycle against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Trump’s intimations that Biden, only three years his senior, is too old to be president haven’t proved effective lines of attack against the former vice president in the past. Biden has now twice avoided coming across as “too old” when squaring off against some of the freshest faces of the Republican Party on a debate stage—while his opponents both walked away with the impression that they weren’t ready for primetime.
“We had a certain expectation that he was going to be kinda ranting and all over the place and our response was going to be cool, cerebral and hold him to account for the failures of the Obama presidency,” Steel said.
“Against a much younger opponent, you can end up looking like the antique that needs to be put out to pasture,” Schroeder said, “and instead he was very aggressive and he really put Ryan on the defensive and Ryan ended up looking sort of too young and inexperienced.”
The Trump campaign told The Daily Beast that eight years is a long time—and that voters deserve to see more of their leaders during a moment of national crisis.
“Joe Biden cynically believes hiding in his basement to avoid accountability with voters deserves to get him elected to the highest office in the United States, which is why we’re asking for more—and earlier—debates this cycle,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager, who told The Daily Beast that the debates “will put the president’s leadership and successful record of ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’ on display.”
In response, Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said: “Weak sauce.”
The Biden campaign has a longstanding policy going back to the early days of the Democratic primary of not commenting on the mechanics of debate preparation but a source familiar with the Biden campaign’s thinking told The Daily Beast that the Trump campaign’s decision to task Rudy Giuliani with lobbying for additional debates has been met with great hilarity internally—and is being read as a sign of desperation.
“They immediately laughed their asses off about Trump’s gimmick because of A) Rudy Giuliani period, B) Trump having said months ago that he didn't want to debate at all, and C) the inherent contradiction between Trump and Giuliani blasting mail-in ballots and then trying to make mail-in ballots the cornerstone of this desperation play,” the source said.
A campaign spokesperson noted that Biden, unlike the president, has publicly committed to following any and all rules put forth by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the governing body for general election debates that has outlined formats and chosen moderators since the 1980s.
“No one should be fooled: the Trump campaign's new position is a debate distraction,” wrote Jen O’Malley Dillon in a letter to the commission obtained by The Daily Beast. “Joe Biden will accept the Commission’s debates, on the Commission’s dates, under the Commission’s established format and the Commission’s independent choice of moderators… Any ‘debate proposals’ in lieu of that are just an effort to change the subject, avoid debates, or create a distracting ‘debate about debates.’”
Biden, for his part, told reporters at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday that he’s “looking forward” to squaring off against Trump no matter the circumstances.
“I can hardly wait,” Biden said, grinning.
— with additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich