The Brief – The Art of the Debate

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS]

Tonight, US President Donald Trump and his Democratic contender Joe Biden will face off for the first time, 35 days ahead of the US presidential election. They will not get a second chance to make a first impression.

Presidential debates have been part of US political culture since Founding Fathers James Madison and James Monroe debated for a seat in Congress and Abraham Lincoln served as a surrogate debater in the days when presidential candidates did not publicly campaign.

But they have come a long way from then. America invented television duels, made them an art form and turned them into a spectacle.

Since the first televised presidential debate, appearance comes before content as contenders are judged for what body language gives away and what phrases stick – be it a punchy one-liner or a verbal or non-verbal slip.

Up to 100 million viewers will tune in to watch the two men in the first of their three debates.

European leaders, too, will be watching closely to get an idea of whom they’ll have to deal when they speak to the White House early next year. But they should not expect foreign policy to take too much centre stage.

The 90-minute televised showdown between Trump and Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, will be the first of three live performances. Moderator Chris Wallace, anchor of Trump-friendly Fox News channel, has been perceived as having retained his independence and is considered impartial.

Debate topics tonight will include Trump’s and Biden’s financial records, the impending replacement of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, the COVID-19 response, the economy, race and racial justice protests, and election integrity.

Foreign policy issues might only loosely appear on the agenda of the debate tonight and are unlikely to take up much of the menu in the next debate, town-hall style, where questions will be asked by citizens.

As early and postal voting is already underway because of the pandemic, both candidates’ performances might prove to be decisive as many voters will have already cast their ballots by the second debate in mid-October.

So who is under greater pressure?

The stakes are high for Biden who has held a consistent lead in the polls nationally throughout the general election campaign though, at around 7% his poll lead is far from decisive. For him, the debate could turn out to be a risky affair, as Trump’s unorthodox, aggressive debating-style could provoke an unorthodox answer. His challenge will be not to play Trump’s game.

“I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl,” Biden said earlier this month, after having referred to himself as a “gaffe machine” before.

Mitchell McKinney, professor of political communication at the University of Missouri and an expert on presidential debates, told reporters that “the tallest order is on Biden: If he does commit a blunder or can’t recall certain things Trump ask him for, it will solidify the narrative that has been created by Trump of him not being fit for the job”.

For Trump, it is a chance to shake up a race in which he is behind. His strategists will likely want him to spotlight Biden’s more liberal positions, such as on climate, in the hope of driving away more conservative Democratic voters.

Otherwise, Trump’s imperative for the night will be diversion, especially as he is currently in the hot seat over the New York Times revelations of him being an anti-social millionaire who has spent years exploiting the system in his favour and paying almost no federal taxes.

“Expect a stream of consciousness, an attack, making claims that are not factual,” Mitchell said of Trump.

The Roundup

The Hungarian government has demanded the resignation of European Commission VP Věra Jourová over what it said were her “derogatory public statements” about democracy in Hungary, and said it would suspend “all political contacts” with her.

French President Emmanuel Macron met Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius, the second day of a visit to Baltic countries meant to reassure them about French commitment to their security.

He also said Europe is “screwed” if the European Parliament ceases sitting in the French city of Strasbourg once a month and convenes only in Brussels.

While automakers are busy making plans to roll out electric vehicles, the existing car fleet will continue relying on traditional fuels for many years to come, the industry says, arguing in favour of biofuels to achieve CO2 cuts in the short term.

In Germany, where agriculture is officially responsible for 6.3% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, around 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases must be saved in order to reach the Paris climate goals. But now that the EU climate targets are to be raised, what contribution can the agriculture sector make?

Look out for…

  • Informal meeting of EU development ministers
  • Competitiveness Council (Research and Innovation)
  • Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi meets Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia
  • Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson meets Prime Minister of Georgia

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

Subscribe to our newsletters