Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Millions of Americans are now anxiously awaiting September 29, when President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden square off in their first presidential debate. It could be pivotal for either side. And if history is any indication, the outcome may be decided well before the evening even starts.
I first learned that lesson in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee. His senior adviser James Baker headed up the debate team and drafted me to pull together a briefing book and help run mock debates.
It was a three-man race and Reagan was to go head-to-head with Congressman John Anderson, who was running as an independent, before facing off against President Jimmy Carter. As preparation, we asked David Stockman, a rising star in GOP ranks and a former Anderson aide, to stand-in as Reagan’s first opponent in a mock debate. Reagan ambled in, seemingly without a care, and was promptly mauled by Stockman, who unloaded reams of statistics and arguments. I didn’t know Reagan well and was stunned. Were we doomed?
The next morning, Reagan was ready: He was much more focused, and the two men finished in a draw. “Whew,” I thought as we started wrapping up to go home. But Reagan said he wanted one more round — a draw wasn’t good enough for him. And this time he decked Stockman, reciting a wide array of facts and figures while sprinkling in doses of humor.
When Reagan got into the ring with Anderson, it was no contest. Anderson wasn’t nearly as good as his stand-in, and questions from the moderator were easier than those from the mock debates. Reagan had won the debate before he even got in the ring.
Shortly thereafter, in his debate against President Carter, Reagan once again came fully armed. In his closing argument, he posed a rhetorical question to the country: “Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” With this one, unexpected punch, he clinched victory. Debate 101 comes down to preparation, preparation, preparation.
I was no longer at the White House four years later when President Reagan faced off against Walter Mondale in their two presidential debates. In the first, Reagan seemed tired and unsure of his footing, and he told a story about California that went on and on … and on. As a result of his performance, the press was soon asking whether he had grown senile. His candidacy was suddenly threatened, making his final debate pivotal.
Part way into that second debate, moderator Hank Trewhitt put it on the table, asking Reagan whether his age would be a barrier to functioning fully in the role. Wryly, Reagan declared: “I will not make age an issue in the campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience erupted in laughter; Mondale later said at that very moment, he knew he had lost the debate.
Once again, preparation had made the difference. We learned later that the Reagan White House staff, feeling insecure, had stuffed him with so many facts and figures that he got lost in the weeds during the first debate. But brother, was he prepared for the second!
In that first debate of 1984, Reagan was also suffering from an affliction many presidents have experienced: He grew rusty, living in a bubble that shielded him from hard questions. That same thing happened to President Barack Obama in his first presidential debate of 2012; he seemed arrogant and resentful. By night’s end, he had lost to Mitt Romney. But Obama, like Reagan, bore down for his return performance, emerging with the laurels — and his presidency intact.
So, what lessons are here for Trump and Biden in their first encounter? On the face of it, Trump faces the greater danger. In his ABC town hall last week, the President showed his usual disdain and delivered rote answers he has repeated dozens of times — despite the fact that they aren’t persuasive. Last week, NBC reported that Trump has refused petitions by his staff to do his homework and practice mock debates in the White House.
It’s possible Trump is secretly memorizing killer lines and he is clearly capable of delivering a punch. But if he shows up as Mr. Very Stable Genius, Biden will have some huge openings.
Biden is already preparing carefully. In truth, he must know he needs it. With some exceptions, Biden’s debate performances during the Democratic primaries were strong. And his showing at Thursday night’s CNN town hall proved he has more of a grasp of policy questions than Trump. But in many of his appearances since securing the nomination, Biden has relied heavily on teleprompters. Before going head-to-head with Trump, he needs to spend more time practicing without a script, shortening and sharpening his answers.
More to the point, Biden must figure out in advance how to handle Trump’s bullying and any attempts to bait him into an ugly brawl. And how should he respond if Trump plows over the time limit and moderator Chris Wallace can’t stop him? What should Biden do when Trump flatly lies time and again, as he is almost certainly bound to?
Both men will be walking a tightrope next Tuesday — and neither will have a safety net. Stay tuned! This could be one for the history books.