Biden Sanders Debate
CNN-New York Times Democratic debate. Oct 15, 2019 Credit: CNN photo by Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Suppose Donald Trump loses his bid for a second term. In that case, historians will have no shortage of causes to cite for his defeat: high unemployment, a pandemic so poorly handled that hundreds of thousands died, aerobic grifting, and an emotional maturity closer to a toddler than T.R.

Down the list of reasons that historians will cite for Trump’s loss will be his decision to attack his successor, Joe Biden, as “sleepy.” Taking a shot at Biden’s age—the subtext of the somnolent jab—might be a well-calculated assault if Trump was a young man taking on a 77-year-old. (Biden won his first election in 1969, the week when “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was the number one film and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” topped the charts.) But Trump is a poor messenger: an obese 74-year-old who brags about his ability to pass the easiest of cognitive tests and defensively denies shuffling down a ramp.

Trying to take down Biden on age and vigor seemed, historians, will conclude, an odd choice given all the charges he might have used: 50 years in politics, liberal, equivocator, the man who argued against the Bin Laden raid according to his colleagues. (Not to mention, one could say, being a champion of banking interests as a senator from Delaware.) But, no, Trump chose sleepy perhaps because “low energy” seemed to wound Jeb Bush.

It doesn’t seem to be working. Trump calls Biden sleepy; Biden delivers a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The debates haven’t begun yet, but Trump is foolish to lower expectations about Biden. (Some of the president’s aides have tried to undo the damage praising Biden’s debating skills. But none of them have Trump’s megaphone.) The former vice-president has plenty of experience in Democratic primary debates, including three presidential bids (1988, 2008, 2016) and his two substantial vice-presidential debates against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012. Plus, there were many Senate debates back in Delaware and 36 years of floor debates in the U.S. Senate, which are a different animal, yes, but still offer plenty of chances for extemporaneous speaking.

Biden is a pretty good debater. Compared to two of our time’s rhetorical giants, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Biden falls short. But he’s done well enough and has been sufficiently cogent to (mostly) avoid his famous bloviating when on stage.

The 2012 vice-presidential debate may have been Biden’s most challenging. Ryan seemed a perfect foil to Biden because there were parallels. Both were Irish Catholic politicians who scored in politics in their 20s. Neither concealed their physical vanity: Ryan often boasted about his PX-90 workouts and Biden blustered about pushups and has showed coy discretion about what have long looked to many like hair plugs. On the “Saturday Night Live” parody of the debate in 2012, Jason Sudeikis’s Biden barked: “You think you’re tougher than me. There’s gym strong, and there’s old man strong.”

Ryan had advantages. The Wisconsin Republican was policy versed, adroit, and likable enough to later be propelled into the Speakership from the coveted chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.

When the two squared off in Danville, Kentucky in October 2012, expectations were high for Ryan. But Biden had a better game. Sometimes, he was too kinetic, laughing slightly manically as Ryan spoke as if to convey, “Is this guy serious?” His frequent references to Ryan as “my friend” sometimes seemed more disingenuous than genial. But Biden’s spirited performance should be seen against the backdrop of Obama’s disastrous performance in his first debate with Mitt Romney. A Gallup poll found that 72% of debate watchers thought Romney had won compared with 20% for Obama, the widest margin of victory in any presidential debate in memory.

Biden’s comparatively passionate debate performance was seen as having slowed the Romney momentum. It was a high-energy “alpha-male” performance, according to The Guardian. “Biden Takes Off Gloves,” wrote The New York Times. “Mr. Ryan, at times, seemed disconcerted by the sheer blowhard intensity Mr. Biden brought to the night.”

Biden was well-prepared, his most successful riposte being when Ryan criticized the Obama stimulus package which Biden oversaw. Biden was ready to pounce. Ryan himself, Biden noted, had requested these government funds on two occasions for his district. “This is such a bad program, but he writes me a letter saying that it will create growth and jobs,” Biden said

Biden’s tendency to meander and lose focus made a brief appearance. Ryan joked: “I think Joe Biden very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Biden chuckled in response: “But I always say what I mean.”

In Danville, Biden also displayed his own Uncle Joeesque vocabulary. “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” he said on more than one occasion, giving a national audience a taste of what would become a trademark epithet. “I just wish he’d (Ryan) be more candid.”

As a general matter, Biden is very good at punctuating his talk with clear guideposts for viewers. He speaks with frequent “first thing, the second thing, lastly(‘s)” as well as hand gestures and (seemingly) meaningful note-taking. A Reuters post-debate poll had Biden winning by seven percent and crushing Ryan in a Business Insider poll. There’s no question Biden had met the challenge.

It’s also worth noting that ABC News’s Martha Raddatz did Biden no favors. A military correspondent, she opened with lots of Benghazi and then pivoted to Iran and when it got to domestic politics she didn’t offer friendlier terrain for the incumbent vice president. Raddatz knocked the Obama-Biden ticket for not having gotten unemployment to the 6 percent the administration had projected early on, even though, at under 8 percent, it had dropped significantly from the nearly 10 percent it reached in 2009.

If you watch the 2008 debate, Biden was very different, calm as if he didn’t want to be seen bullying a woman and a petite one at that. Against Palin,  Biden seemed most at home talking foreign policy and seemed prepared and well-informed. He made an extraordinary and emotional mention of his wife and daughter, even choking up at one point.  “The notion that, somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to make it,” he said. “I understand as well as, with all due respect, the governor or anybody else, what it’s like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They’re looking for help.”  Palin had been starting to implode already. She kept calling him Joe because, as we later learned from the book Game Change, she kept calling him “O’Biden” in mock debates and “Joe” was safer. Still, she is charismatic and Biden could easily have stumbled. He didn’t.

Earlier this year, when Biden faced Bernie Sanders in one-on-one debates, he was more animated than against Palin but less hyper than against Ryan.  He did fine.avoiding getting pushed into Medicare-for-all but wielded the public option to demonstrate his compassion. He slyly noted that many single-payer countries were not, as Sanders asserted, dealing better with the pandemic. Biden squirmed out of Sander’s charges that he wanted to cut Social Security. (Biden had said some positive things about the deficit-cutting Bowles-Simpson commission.) Biden did use the debate with Sanders to make an identity politics play that Sanders wouldn’t match. The former Vice President vowed to select a woman as his vice president and put an African American woman on the Supreme Court. Did those panders work? Probably. They also showed that he’d internalized the shots that Kamala Harris and others had fired from the left and adjusted accordingly.

Biden’s problem against Trump is the same one that bedeviled more than a dozen Republican primary challengers and Hillary Clinton in 2016: Trump lies with abandon and doesn’t play by the standard rules of, shall we say, etiquette. That’s how he could call Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul ugly. It’s how he could bring Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment accusers to a debate with the former president’s wife. With real-time fact-checking unlikely from a moderator, with shallow questions more likely than penetrating ones, Biden will face the problem of whether to adjudicate every asinine Trump claim or to let many of them go. That’s a tough balance.

He’ll have to manage attacks on his family. Normal how-dare-you indignation may not work. When Trump ridiculed Jeb Bush’s corny-but-heartfelt boasts about his family (including his mother), the former Florida governor responded with appropriate anger. Trump didn’t retreat and chimed in about Barbara Bush, “Maybe she should have run.”

The truth is that both Biden and Trump have considerable strengths, even if Trump’s are more cudgel than scalpel. A good example; Ryan complimented Beau Biden’s military service at their 2012 debate. This year, Trump will go surely go after Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work to get under Biden’s skin. The Democratic nominee will be ready. But Trump is not above finding a way to needle Beau Biden, Joe’s late son,  a veteran who died of cancer, perhaps leveling a baseless charge about his record as Delaware’s attorney general or friendship with Harris. It’s unlikely to happen but it could and that shows the mercurial nature of any Trump debate. It’s more improv than remembering your zingers.

No moderator has run a Trump debate terribly well and, to be fair, that’s not an easy feat. The reporter in the interlocutor’s chair must bust the same mental blocks that the entire press corps has yet to bust. Most reporters still operate by pre-Trump rules of treating both sides as if they’re sane. Trumpian lunacy confounds all. Remember the first line spoken by any candidate in the 2016 Republican primary debates was Trump responding to a question about respect for women and making fun of Rosie O’Donnell. Unchastened, the next day he conjured up images of Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. It didn’t hurt the hollow tycoon.

I don’t know who will win the debate. I’d tend to bet on Biden. I do know it will be anything but sleepy.

James Walker provided research assistance for this article

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.