Meet Joe Biden’s chief debate guru
By the time Joe Biden takes the stage Tuesday night for his first debate with President Trump, he will have gone through dozens upon dozens of hours of preparation with a close group of advisers firing questions at him.
One of the main advisers leading the drills is Ron Klain, his longtime confidant and former chief of staff who isn’t officially on the Biden campaign, but knows the former vice president almost better than anyone.
“He knows Biden’s strengths and weaknesses to the letter,” said one longtime Biden aide. “No one can help Biden prepare for this moment better than Ron.”
Having Klain on the team and in debate prep comes at a critical time for Biden as the nation faces the potential of a deadly second wave in the coronavirus pandemic, and a politically divisive battle over Trump’s chosen successor to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
Both issues will be central in Tuesday night’s debate, and it just so happens Klain has a long history with both.
The 60-year-old served as the Obama administration’s Ebola czar, leading its response to the epidemic in late 2014 and early 2015.
He’s also a former Supreme Court law clerk who served as the chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and helped lead the team that won Ginsburg’s confirmation in 1993 in an overwhelming 96-3 vote.
In other words, he couldn’t be better placed to advise a candidate for a presidential debate, particularly this one.
It’s a moment “where many of his areas of expertise are at the forefront” of the national conversation,” said one senior Biden campaign aide.
“It’s pretty astonishing how Ron’s capacities and experience have converged at this moment,” said a second senior campaign aide. “We’ve got a global pandemic and he helped prevent the last one, an economic crisis and he helped design the recovery from the last one, a Supreme Court nomination and he’s managed several.”
“He’s a vital asset for the VP,” the second aide added.
Klain was at the center of debate preparation for former President Obama and Hillary Clinton in the previous election cycles. But his drills with Biden in recent weeks are arguably different in a sense because of his particularly close relationship with the former vice president.
“He knows what will work for him better than almost anyone and he’s not afraid to tell the VP exactly what he’s thinking and what he thinks isn’t working,” the longtime Biden aide said.
Biden aides have kept the debate process under wraps, but sources who have spoken to Biden campaign aides say the process is somewhat different than previous years when one person has played the Democratic opponent.
During the 2016 presidential race, for example, Philippe Reines, Hillary Clinton’s anything-but-shy longtime adviser, played Trump, donning a slightly-baggy suit with cufflinks and a red tie and shoes with three-and-a-quarter inch lifts. He even chased Clinton around a room to prepare her for what was to come on stage.
This year, even though there isn’t one singular person “playing” Trump, Democrats inside and outside the campaign point to Klain as the person who can best prepare Biden for what’s coming in the debate — and beyond.
“It’s not just his intellectual command of the issues but the fact that he has lived experience in government making things happen,” the first senior Biden aide said of Klain, who is widely seen as a potential White House chief of staff for Biden if the former vice president wins the election.
“It’s one thing to put a plan on paper. It’s another thing to understand how it can be implemented and what kind of real world impact it will have,” the aide said.
Biden campaign officials approached Klain, a frequent presence on cable news, early this year to appear in a video explaining the coronavirus’s spread and Trump’s slow response to contain it.
After refusing initially — he didn’t want to upstage his longtime boss — he also talked up Biden’s plan to help the pandemic in mid-March as schools and workplaces began to shut their doors and the economy went haywire.
“Think about what kind of president you want to have running your country,” Klain said in the video. “As someone who has led a response like this and has worked with Joe Biden for more than 30 years, I can tell you he would know what to do when something happens again like this in the future. He wouldn’t mess it up like our current president has.”
Some critics at the time wondered why Biden himself didn’t appear in such a video, which as of Friday has been viewed more than 45,000 times on YouTube.
But an official said the video sent an important signal about the kind of people Biden would surround himself with in his administration. Biden has sought to cast his campaign as a return to normalcy and competency after the turbulent Trump years, and it’s a message the Biden campaign continues to believe will resonate.
It’s also a message Biden is likely to send on Tuesday night when the candidates take the stage in Cleveland.
“You’ll see one man that is competent, well-prepared and up to speed on the issues,” the longtime aide said. “And another man who claims he didn’t even prepare for this debate.”