In the next presidential debate, can Biden fire a Reagan?


When former Vice President Joe Biden takes the stage for his first debate with President Trump, some of us will look back forty years to another presidential debate and the lessons he taught.

On October 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter met for the one and only debate with his challenger, former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Like Donald Trump, Carter was a first-term president whose path to re-election was rocky, to say the least. Carter’s average approval rating (over his tenure) stood at a paltry 45.5%, the lowest of any post-war president except for – you guessed it – Donald Trump, whose overall average approval rating is 40%.

It’s hard to imagine two men more different than Jimmy Carter, the humble and devout Christian peanut farmer from Georgia, and Donald Trump, the flashy real estate mogul. But the circumstances of their presidencies and the stakes of their debates are similar.

In the final year of their first term, both men faced crises for which they and the country they led were unprepared. For Trump, of course, it was the novel coronavirus. This virus and its associated political problems, which required careful coordination and implementation by disparate government authorities, would have been a challenge for even the most seasoned president. But it proved overwhelming for a man who had no previous experience in the public sector.

For Carter, it was the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, where 52 Americans were held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. It was America’s first major experience with Islamic radicals, and Carter’s attempts to negotiate went nowhere, as the official ruling government in Iran had little control over the student radicals who held the hostages. In April 1980, Carter resorted to a daring military rescue operation that failed spectacularly, killing American military personnel as planes crashed in the desert before they even reached Tehran.

For Trump, the coronavirus has wiped out his greatest advantage: an economy with low inflation and low unemployment. As the country shut down due to the virus, unemployment rose and the virus dragged on, millions of the unemployed began to fear they would never return to work. Carter’s election year was also marked by economic hardship. In January 1980, the country was in recession. Under his leadership, the inflation rate soared into double digits and unemployment rose, a rare occurrence in economics.

And while it could be argued that neither man was responsible for the disasters that struck the country, the country found their leadership lacking. Trump has been widely criticized not only for his lack of competence, but also for his lack of empathy for those suffering from the virus and his repeated attempts to downplay the severity of the virus. Carter was criticized for his response to the economic pain, which he delivered in a speech that was widely criticized and became known as the “malaise” speech.

Like Carter, Trump found himself on the eve of the debates behind in the polls and virtually powerless to stage a game-changing “October Surprise.” The Carter administration continued its attempts to free the hostages, to no avail – the Iranian radicals simply wouldn’t cooperate. Likewise, the Trump administration has continued its attempts to overcome the virus, but the virus will not cooperate either. The first failures allowed him to go wild. And it continues to kill, this time in red states, and a vaccine before Election Day remains an aspiration that public health experts and pharmaceutical companies consider unattainable.

When an incumbent president is in this kind of problem, he has only one option and that is to make the challenger even less acceptable. The Carter campaign went bankrupt, doling out political nominations across the country claiming Reagan was dangerous: a racist and someone who would lead the country into a war, someone too radical to have their finger on the nuclear button . They were playing the only hand they had, trying to make the challenger even worse than the holder. Trump has done this to Biden all year, even when it looked like Biden wouldn’t be the eventual nominee. He tried to portray Biden as old, weak and not up to the job – hence “sleepy Joe”. And he tried to convince America that Biden would ruin the American way of life, especially in the suburbs.

However, when Reagan took the stage on the night of October 28, 1980, America did not see a dangerous and radical warmonger. They saw an avuncular, kind man who could look right into your living room and ask murderous questions:

“Are you better off than four years ago? Is it easier to go buy things in stores than four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than four years ago? Is the American as respected in the world as he was? Do you think our security is as secure? That we are as strong as four years ago?

After this debate, the dam broke. On November 4, Reagan defeated Carter by 9 points, winning all but six states and the District of Columbia.

Next week, Joe Biden‘s only job in his first debate with Trump will be to show America that he is not a dangerous radical or a socialist. Biden needs to show he’s strong enough to get the job done and stable enough not to become a “Trojan horse” for the radical left. In fact, he should come up with his own version of “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If he succeeds, Joe Biden has a good chance of following in Ronald Reagan’s electoral footsteps.

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