The Southpaw vs. the Technician: What To Watch for During Tonight’s Debate
Photos: Olivier Douliery and Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Southpaw vs. the Technician: What To Watch for During Tonight’s Debate

Biden is a skilled debater…

While presidential debates tend to be a reserved, even genteel affair, it’s difficult not to think that tonight’s first showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will feel a lot more like a title fight in Las Vegas. Two heavyweights, two diametrically opposed ideologies, two different styles of debate — and two different fighting philosophies.

My prediction is Trump will be the southpaw debater of the night — like Manny Pacquiao or Conor McGregor, his lack of orthodoxy can be tough to counter because other fighters have less experience against it. Biden may be an experienced debater, but he isn’t used to debating a person that appears to suffer from pseudologia fantastica, a pathological compulsion to lie that’s deeply ingrained in his psychological makeup.

Don’t expect a knockout or even a standing eight-count to decide the match. This one’s going to go all 12 rounds.

But when southpaws lose, they don’t lose to fireworks — they lose to fundamentals. Floyd Mayweather showed us that in 2015 in his battle of the century against Pacquiao. Skilled tactics won the night; Mayweather blocked and jabbed, never looking for the knockout, taking a unanimous decision by being a difficult target to hit. In this case, Trump’s nickname for Biden, “Sleepy Joe,” is a shrewd strategy for the onetime vice president: Biden just needs to stick to principled policies and not get dragged into a mud fight (as tempting as that might be after the New York Times’ bombshell report Sunday on Trump’s tax history). Don’t expect a knockout or even a standing eight-count to decide the match. This one’s going to go all 12 rounds.

The first debate’s moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, selected five topics that will be the focus of tomorrow night’s questions. These are the three to pay close to attention to because they’ll likely give each candidate the best chances to land blows:

The Supreme Court

On Saturday, Trump officially named Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat left behind by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That appointment would give conservatives a supermajority on the Supreme Court — and would also mean that Senate Republicans have reversed their own vehement stance from 2016, when they opposed Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination during an election year.

Whether or not Barrett has been confirmed by debate time, look for Trump to signal how he would like the famously anti-abortion Barrett to rule on landmark reproductive-rights precedent Roe v. Wade.

And on the other side, expect Biden to call out the hypocrisy of the president and the GOP. I suspect Biden will have one of his most impassioned moments here because it’s personal: He was part of the administration that was denied its constitutional right to seat a Supreme Court justice. As the potential leader of the nation, it’s his responsibility to plead the case to the American people if the nomination should move forward — or to signal how he would seek to break the Supreme Court’s ill-gotten stranglehold, whether by working to enlarge the Court, adding term limits, or any other maneuver.

Race and violence in our cities

This is where the fireworks will be. (Though the fact that Wallace framed the topic as such ignores the fact that the “violence” in question is either police brutality or the response to that brutality.) George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered protests around the world. It reminded us of all the high-profile deaths of Black Americans during the past decade — and ripped the bandage off the false narrative that Obama’s election ushered in a “post-racial” era.

Trump has leaned into “law and order” rhetoric throughout his reelection campaign — and, of course, on Twitter — casting protesters as a horde of anarchists wreaking havoc on cities. “Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans,” he said during his acceptance speech at August’s Republican National Convention, “and whether … we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”

Concepts like defunding the police and other calls to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system are sure to lead to contentious debate; Trump will try to back Biden into a corner by making him defend the position that you can be pro-police while also fighting against systemic racism and can pursue equitable justice.

During this section of the debate, expect cringeworthy racist moments and consistent dog whistles from Trump. However, this issue will give Biden a chance to highlight his advocacy for Black Americans and his ability to moderate a race conversation during the highest-stake moment of the campaign. My prediction: He’ll do it direct-to-camera in order to speak to America and ignore whatever bait Trump dangles in front of him.

The economy

Throughout his term, and especially as the conversation about race in this country has grown more intense, Trump has cast himself as a champion for and hero of the Black community.

So let’s fact-check that. Yes, the unemployment rate for Black Americans reached 5.9% in May 2018, the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records in 1972 — but it was the culmination of a long decline that began under Obama. (In fact, the majority of the decline happened under Obama; by the time Trump took office, the rate had dropped from 16.5% to 7.5%.) This will be the first time he will come face to face with an Obama administration official who can fact-check him in real time. Will Biden seize the moment or get entangled in Trump’s pseudologia fantastica?

One thing you can be sure of is that both men will present their economic plans for Black Americans. Biden will discuss his Lift Every Voice plan for Black Americans, which acknowledges systemic inequality and the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on the Black community, both physically and economically. Trump’s newly released Platinum Plan does neither, but it’s still his attempt to close a massic support gap. Trump garnered just 8% of the Black electorate in 2016 — and an average of recent 2020 polls shows Biden leading Trump with Black voters by an 83% to 8% margin.

What to watch for is if Trump, who is not actively prepping for the debate, can recall the details of his own plan; if not, will Biden hold him to the mat? Trump can be slippery — he’ll respond to Covid-19 criticisms by saying the Obama administration left him no stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) and claiming that Obama mishandled the H1N1 pandemic — so this is one of the few times we will see Biden present a strong offense.

While I used Mayweather and Pacquiao as a comparison earlier, the better analogy might just be the 2017 match between Mayweather and mixed martial arts champ Conor McGregor: a world champion professional boxer going against an accomplished fighter who developed his skills in an entirely different sport. That time, Mayweather came out victorious by TKO. Only time will tell whether Biden does the same.

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