Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before

Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before
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As we wait for tonight’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE, most of the nation and the mainstream media are depicting the outcome as mainly dependent on whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE exhibits his rudeness and abnormal behavior again, as he did in the last debate. The result of that last debate was a setback for Mr. Trump by at least two to three points in the polls, which is a lot by historical standards.

But tonight, I expect that even if Mr. Trump repeats this self-destructive behavior — and there are many, including myself, who believe he will try to listen to his advisors but just won’t be able to help himself — the overriding historical forces at work regarding the nation’s overall mood will be more important than what happens at the debate itself.

My premise is that the election will turn on which of these two men best fit the mood of the American people. There are three historical examples where a presidential candidate and the nation’s mood were perfectly aligned on the need for two attributes in the candidates: 1) decency in the next president; and 2) a return to normalcy in the nation — a plan to end the COVID pandemic based on science, not lies; economic recovery that flows from the latter; and maybe most important, a return to civility in our public discourse.


The first historical moment in American history where these two elements were important occurred in the election of the next president was in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president in the House of Representatives after he and Aaron Burr were tied in the Electoral College. This moment occurred actually after Jefferson’s election.

The venom and personal attacks of the partisan years under the second president, John Adams, from 1796-1800, were as bad if not worse than today. Lest we forget, the partisanship was so bad between the “Federalists” and the “Jeffersonian Republicans” that even the moderate President John Adams signed legislation (the “Alien and Sedition Acts”) that the “High Federalists” pushed through making it a crime to criticize the president or members of Congress!

While the new president was known as a leader of the anti-federalist Republicans, he lanced the boil of the previous extreme partisan divisions in his March 1801 Inaugural speech when he said: “We are all federalists, we are all Republicans.” The national sigh of relief must have been evident to all.

Then in 1920, another similar national moment occurred when the presidential candidate and the national mood coincided almost perfectly. World War I was over, the nation was drained and fatigued, and now it saw deep divisions between the incumbent second-term president, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and a harsh partisan Republican Senate, blocking and rejecting Wilson’s stubborn campaign to force the Senate to approve U.S. entry into the “League of Nations.”

So, the nation welcomed the GOP presidential candidate, A former editor of a rural newspaper from Marion, Ohio, who was then a U.S. senator, named Warren G. Harding. He won in a landslide in the November 1920 elections. He campaigned from his back porch, and was criticized for not being a more aggressive campaigner. The overwhelming issue for him was a perfect summation of the national mood: a “return to normalcy.”


The third instance was in 1976, when Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterJimmy and Rosalynn Carter encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccine Dreaming of space exploration? You're better off riding bikes The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE, a heretofore largely unknown former governor from Georgia and a peanut farmer, surprised everyone by winning the Democratic Party nomination and the presidency. His campaign occurred in the aftermath of the August 1974 resignation of Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal, in which Nixon and “his men” repeatedly lied to the American people and thought they could get away with it. (A must read on Carter is Jonathan Alter’s brilliantly written and insightful recent biography on Carter, “His Very Best”). Carter used a sentence in the early days of his campaign for the nomination all the way through the general election that came to be seen as critical to his authentic identity and to his election as the nation’s 39th president: “I will never lie to you.”

Now, 12 days from election day Nov. 3, we see once again the national mood, at least a significant majority just might be perfectly aligned with the Democratic candidate and who he truly is: Joe Biden. He has said that his campaign is fundamentally about battling for the “soul of the nation.” With a nation more divided and partisan than ever for many generations, this seems to be the moment when most Americans yearn for change — an end to bitter presidential rhetoric and divisive leadership — a president who can return us to bipartisanship (Jefferson), normalcy (Harding) and a president who believes he must tell the truth and know the difference between facts and lies (Carter).

So tonight at the debate, as I have written before on these pages before the first debate on Sept. 29, Joe Biden simply has to be himself. He can’t fake it if he tried. He is a decent, kind, and empathetic leader. All his years in the Senate, since 1973, he showed he could act with civility and civil discourse even with conservative Republicans with whom he strongly disagreed.

Meanwhile, I believe that despite advice from his advisors to the contrary, Donald Trump will be … Donald Trump. He can’t help himself — he will lie, and not care that we know he is lying. He will attack and be rude. That is who he is.

So tonight, Biden will be himself. Whether he wins or not on Nov. 3, I still do not know. But I do know that if he wins, it’s because he is who he is — and the right person for the right moment in this crucial time in U.S. history.

Davis served as special counsel to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson Clinton'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? Biden says he will join former presidents and publicly get coronavirus vaccine MORE (1996-98) and served as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is co-founder of the law firm of Davis Goldberg & Galper and the strategic media and crisis management firm Trident DMG. He authored “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics and Life” (Scribner Threshold 2013).