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Douglas Andrews / Sep. 29, 2020

A Biden Debate Primer

If you think tonight's first debate will be a cakewalk for Donald Trump, think again.

We don’t mean to ruin anyone’s day, but Joe Biden has a lot going for him heading into tonight’s first presidential debate. Seriously.

First, even though President Donald Trump has tightened things up in recent weeks, Biden still leads in the polls. We know, we know: The polling is shamefully biased and meant to depress those malleable middle-of-the-roaders still open to the idea of voting for Trump. We get it. And for that reason, we call it “pollaganda,” and we take all of it with a shovelful of salt. Still, Scranton Joe has some margin for error.

Second, Biden has been debating other politicians for nearly half a century, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. A lot of this is muscle memory — key terms, simple phrases, and affective mannerisms he can summon up even in a state of cognitive decline. So even if — ahem — the words mouth of out his come that all sense at no make, he’ll be able to act as though they do. And for soft Democrats and Trump-averse indies inclined to watch the debate with the volume on mute, that’s all it’ll take. What’s more, while the president has been barnstorming the nation, Biden has been prepping in his basement.

Third, the debate bar for Biden has been set preposterously low. The bar is so low, in fact, that if the mysterious pick-me-up his handlers have been giving him in recent weeks can keep him somewhere north of catatonia for 90 minutes, Wednesday’s headlines will say that he mopped the floor with Trump. If Biden doesn’t drool, he “wins” in a rout. This is the danger of mismanaged expectations, and the president’s supporters have no one to blame for it but themselves.

Fourth, and finally, the mainstream media serves Biden like a Praetorian Guard with a poop-scooper. Whenever he says something false, foolish, or straight-up contradictory — and he will — they’ll be right there for him, just like that Harvey Keitel character in “Pulp Fiction,” to clean up the mess. “Fracking cleanup on Aisle 6,” he’ll shout, and his media fixers will come a-runnin’.

And it’s this last point that’s the most galling. We know that The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press desperately want Biden to win. We know that CNN, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and countless other media organs are all-in behind Barack Obama’s bumbling backslapper. And we know that President Trump has singlehandedly made mincemeat out of the media’s reputation for four years running. But can’t they play this game with honest dice just once out of respect for the American people?

Of course not.

Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru recently pondered this very issue. “All political candidates make mistakes,” he wrote. “For a lucky few candidates, the embarrassment is mitigated by the assistance of journalists who accept the explanations or, even better, don’t ask for them in the first place. … This protective impulse toward Biden on the part of the press is sure to express itself in all kinds of ways as the campaign goes on.”

And it has expressed itself, as when he flip-flopped on fracking, when he shamefully walked away from the Hyde Amendment, and when he (laughably) vowed to “take your AR-14s away.”

“When people want to dismiss the importance of Trump’s inaccuracies,” Ponnuru concludes, “they sometimes say he should be taken seriously but not literally. But part of the press’s job is to report when candidates are departing from the literal truth. It should not be to protect a candidate from the voters, or from himself.”

This, though, is the priceless in-kind contribution that the Biden campaign is getting from the mainstream media: protection from the voters and from himself.

We hope we’re wrong about tonight’s debate. We hope Trump cleans Biden’s clock. But if he doesn’t, it’ll be in large part because, in addition to debating Biden, he was also debating a deeply dishonest media.

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