Debates are never about the issues

Guest Writer

During the debates, issues are boring and secondary. What really counts is: How does he look? Will he fight for us? Does he have grace under pressure?  Can he be stumped? Can he put two sentences together? Is he too old? Is he too crazy? Will he make a gaffe?

When old-time political bosses were picking candidates, the central question they thought the voters would ask was: Is he one of us?…….

It is both complicated and simple and, more times than we’d like to admit, based on the trivial. Is he rude? Interrupting too much? Is he too elitist? Does she really care about us? Will he take care of us? Is there a fly in his hair?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts. What kind of a golfer is Trump? How many pushups can Joe do?

Ever since the first televised debate between Kennedy & Nixon, voters have often judged candidates on inconsequential issues. Nixon lost the 1960 debate and election because of such trivial concerns as: how much did he sweat? How much makeup did he have on?

As the story goes, voters who listened to the debate on the radio were overwhelmingly convinced that Nixon had won on the issues, but Kennedy was the clear victor among those who actually watched the debate.

Kennedy won because he looked cool and composed on stage next to the Vice President. He looked like he knew what he was doing. He looked like he belonged there. Joe Biden had to pass this simple test in the first debate. He did.

Debates are an obvious testing ground. Voters are picking the most powerful person in the world. They want answers about personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot. Bill Clinton, for all his foibles, did pass the Is He One Of Us? Test.

Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not.

Donald Trump was one of us in 2016 when he quashed Hillary in the Midwest battleground states. He claimed he was not going to go by the rules that had destroyed the lives and jobs of tens of millions of middle class Americans.

He was the swashbuckling, devil-may-care outsider who was going to drain the Washington swamp and keep us out of foolish wars.

The Republicans managed to stick an elitist insider perception on Hillary Clinton and she didn’t stand a chance with Middle America.

But can Trump do it again?

In a few weeks we will see if the Republicans have succeeded in their efforts to cram this elitist perception of Joe Biden down the throats of the voters. They have tried to “define” the Democratic nominee as too old, too liberal, “he will raise your taxes” — just as they defined Kerry as a windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.

But it’s hard to paint Biden as an elitist. He comes from a blue collar working class background.

Whereas Trump grew up in a super wealthy family, far removed from the lives of ordinary Americans. But being wealthy is not ordinarily a fatal flaw in American politics. John Kennedy was wealthy, but he was a war hero and connected with coal miners in West Virginia and with poor Blacks in the south. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also from a rich family, but he identified with and empathized with the unemployed and those suffering from the Great Depression.

But after 4 years of being in office, we have seen how Trump caters to the rich: with tax breaks  and fawns over foreign dictators and extremist hate groups.

But most galling of all to the working class is Trump being so wealthy and paying virtually no taxes ($750) which kind of a tell: Maybe he doesn’t really care about us?

Trump had things going pretty well for himself up until last January; the economy was going great, the London betting odds had him about ten points up. Then he was briefed about the Covid-19.

Instead of becoming a wartime president, he adopted a cavalier attitude toward the untamed pandemic and chose to foster an atmosphere of invincibility — a no-mask mantra —- when he knew better.

Instead of leveling with the American people, Trump chose not to panic them. He did not understand that this was different and he did not, could not pivot quickly enough. As a result, the United States has the worst record of fighting the pandemic of any industrialized nation. Our economy tanked, 30 million people out of work, and Trump continues to deny the deadly record of our enemy, which may in the next eight months, wind up killing more Americans than were killed in World War II.

The idea that Trump may get some sympathy for getting the illness, is not really taking hold. Most voters believe it was his own fault, like a speeding drunk driver who “just happens” to have an accident.

Today, Trump has a 17% chance of winning the election according to Nate Silver of 538.com. A far cry from where he stood pre-pandemic.

It’s not a done deal. Game changers can happen. Planes crash, people get sick..

True enough, despite bad polls, Trump managed to squeak through in 2016.

But the Fat Lady is singing a different song than 2016. And now it’s time to see how the audience responds.

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