Why the 2020 presidential debates will matter more than any in recent memory

When President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE and Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe Biden28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Franklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning MORE square off during the first presidential debate tonight, it will mark the beginning of the final push in the 2020 election. In some ways, it will be a return to a level of normalcy in an election year that has been anything but normal. 

The debate moderators, beginning with Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceCheney: I can't ignore Trump because he 'continues to be a real danger' CDC director denies political pressure affected new mask guidelines Sunday shows - White House COVID-19 response coordinator says US is 'turning the corner' MORE, will have an incredibly important job this cycle, and in an election in which enthusiasm and interest are at near record highs.

The main reason that the 2020 debates could be the most consequential general election debates of any in recent decades is because of the extreme “prevent defense” being played by the Biden campaign. Biden has barely taken questions from the press or sat for interviews with the media. His running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHere's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE (D-Calif.), has yet to take a single question from the media in a press conference. In the three days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgJudge Judy on expanding Supreme Court: 'It's a dumb idea' Court watchers buzz about Breyer's possible retirement Five hot-button issues Biden didn't mention in his address to Congress MORE, Biden called an immediate “lid” in two of the three days — meaning there was no campaign activity at all. In fact, the Biden campaign has done that 36 percent of the days in September.


When Biden has spoken to the press, he’s often been evasive on specifics — instead getting meta about what it would mean to answer the specific questions being asked of him. 

Beginning with Fox’s Chris Wallace on Tuesday, and continuing with C-SPAN’s Steve Scully and NBC’s Kristen Welker, the debate moderators have a responsibility to get precise answers from the Democratic nominee. Rather than focus on hypotheticals about what Biden would have done differently than Trump during the pandemic, the media members tasked with the important job of debate moderator should push Biden on how he’d govern if elected. It’s not enough to say he’d do more to combat climate change than the current administration. Would he adopt the Green New Deal? What about “defunding the police”? Or “Medicare for All”? The moderators need to press Biden on where general election Biden stands now compared to where primary election Biden stood earlier this year.

With Trump, the moderators can also distinguish themselves by pressing him to provide real, concrete answers to the public. As an incumbent, Trump will face questions about his record over the past four years. But instead of drifting toward less concrete questions about the “mood in the country,” the moderators should focus on specifics. What foreign policy successes have been achieved, and what costs have come from mistakes made abroad? How has the pandemic response evolved, and what would he have done differently? Most importantly, what policies can we expect if he’s reelected?

The moderators would be smart to avoid questions about the candidates’ competency or mental acuity. Debates are not an opportunity to test cognitive function — there’s no “person woman man camera TV” quizzing going on. Instead, voters will get a sense for the candidates’ competency by how they handle the challenging questions being asked of them, and how they respond to one another.

These debates may have a greater effect on the campaign than did the 2016 presidential debates. NBC national political correspondent Steve Kornacki recently noted that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCongress won't end the wars, so states must Democrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit MORE “won” the debates by a wider margin in snap polls after the debate than any previous candidate before her since polling began. The result? The national polls barely moved, and in the end, Clinton’s debate “victories” turned out to mean nothing.


That won’t happen this time. Because he has largely avoided the spotlight, every appearance Biden does make takes on added resonance. Every slip up is more damaging. Likewise, every success is more impactful. It’s been a gamble to starve the media of oxygen, and by extension, the voters, and one on which Trump has the opportunity to capitalize. 

The very broad topics list put out by the Commission on Presidential Debates has not revealed much about what’s to come tonight. It’s incumbent on the moderators to ask challenging, precise questions of both candidates — and to set the stage for the most meaningful presidential debates we’ve seen in decades.

Steve Krakauer is the founder and editor of Fourth Watch, a media watchdog newsletter. He has been a senior digital producer for CNN, a vice president of The Blaze, and worked previously for Mediaite and TVNewser.