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The first debate means everything

The first debate means everything
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This year’s first presidential debate means everything, because there may not be another. A decisive win would give the victor strong incentive to skip the rest. This is particularly true for Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE because it would allow a return to the strategy he was pursuing before the conventions.  

Candidate debates have become a hallmark of America’s presidential contests. Made famous by 1960’s televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, they have taken place every four years since 1976. They have provided some of modern American politics’s most memorable moments.  

This year’s first debate is scheduled to take place in Cleveland on Sep. 29. Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBiden adviser: 'He does not have any concern' about Trump lawsuits Public health expert: Americans no longer acting 'with common purpose' on pandemic Anti-Defamation League criticizes White House appointee 'who has consorted with racists' MORE of Fox News will moderate and the debate will consist of six 15-minute segments on topics of Wallace’s choosing. Each candidate will get two minutes to respond to a question from Wallace, after which they will have a chance to respond to each other. Two other debates are also scheduled, but do not count on those.  

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If Biden simply survives in Cleveland, the liberal chorus clamoring for him to refuse the rest will be deafening. Sporadic calls for him to duck all three began some time ago. History and polls’ tightening have dissuaded him from taking such advice.  

Already the establishment media is preparing the ground for him to be declared the winner. They did so with fawning praise for him reading his acceptance speech from a TelePrompTer, on a near-empty set at the Democratic National Convention. Of course, few were watching then; Cleveland will be a very different story.  

Everyone will be watching the first debate. All the political spin in the world will be unable to change what the tens of millions see with their own eyes.  

Both parties’ problem is that each has lowered the expectations for their opponent. However, these shared low expectations neutralize each other, leaving neither an advantage.   

Distilled down by lowered expectations, a battle centered on appearances and fewer gaffes favors Trump. Consequently, if Biden can be viewed as having survived the encounter, his camp is unlikely to risk another. Democrats will say he proved he “could do it” and the establishment media will echo that he has nothing left to prove.  

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Additionally, victory will give either candidate a boost. With Biden leading in national polls, this could give him the appearance of a safe lead with which to ride out the final month.   

If Biden skipping the last two debates seems implausible, remember that avoiding public campaigning — something far less risky than presidential debates — was his strategy for months. Not until increasing riots and the coronavirus's diminishing impact did Biden feel the need to reemerge. It would not be a strategic change to eschew more debates and limit campaign appearances to staged events and media contact to friendly interviews.  

If Trump wins the first debate, he too could find excuses to cancel the remainder. He would have the motive of not allowing Biden to redeem himself. However, there are stronger arguments as to why he would not do so. 

The media’s clear double standard on this race could not be clearer here. Despite their willingness to let Biden out of a rematch (the New York Times’s Tom Friedman was one of the earliest urging Biden to essentially skip the debates altogether), the establishment media will demand that Trump offer second and third chances if Biden is felt to need them.  

It also does not fit Trump’s personality to avoid the later debates, even if he is considered the first one’s winner. Unlike Biden, who withdrew from campaigning for months, Trump has remained publicly active. Trump would want to press the advantage and likely need to. Trailing now, even a first debate win could well just pull Trump even with Biden, not leave him a seemingly safe lead.  

America will be well advised to watch the first debate at the end of the month because it is the only one guaranteed. If Trump wins, he could cancel the rest; if Biden wins, or even just survives, expect he would cancel them. It is arguable that no debate in U.S. history has carried more weight before-the-fact than this one. If this election is as momentous as both camps claim, the occurrence of a real campaign over the last month of the race may well depend on it. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.