Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, about school reopenings. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Biden on Covid-19 response: Talk about a know-nothing president
02:11 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His debate teams have won five national championships, and he has been recognized three times as the national debate coach of the year. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Joe Biden’s got his work cut out for him in his debates against President Donald Trump. Even though most people thought Hillary Clinton won the debates against Trump during the 2016 election, it turns out there was something about Trump’s unorthodox approach that resonated with much of the public.

Trump’s communication is a combination of humor, dominance and rudeness. It’s difficult for anyone not named Trump to pull it off. After all, Trump’s been mean-mugging his whole life. At this point, his communication, like the digital conveyor in the 1999 movie Galaxy Quest, is much more art than science.

Todd Graham

Based on our experience, we can all expect Trump to use these five strategies in the debates: interrupt, lie excessively, blame others through whataboutism, insult and use exaggerated fear appeals.

And based on past performance, we may also expect some behaviors from Biden—ones he should avoid repeating. Biden tends to laugh when others are speaking, and it’s off-putting to a lot of viewers. Also, Biden’s anger displays are excessive and misplaced at times, and appear uncontrolled at others. I fear that, without practicing against a realistic Trump doppelganger (we assume he is doing this now), Biden will let Trump get him worked up in the debates, and then won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle. Occasional righteous indignation: good. Uncontrollable angry man: bad.

To be successful, Biden’s going to have to win a “street debate.” My teams have encountered more than our share of Trump “style” debaters, and there’s only one way to effectively win against them.

Control the room.

I’ve used this phrase so much that I ought to wear it as a lapel pin. To simplify, it means don’t get lost in the weeds of specific arguments. Instead, emphasize attitude. Stand up to Trump. Be assertive. Be aggressive. Be big.

In coaching debate and teaching interpersonal communication, there are lessons on how to counter an overbearing opponent such as Trump. And it’s as simple as this: If you aren’t aggressive back at them (but in your own way), you’ll get steamrolled. In those first Republican debates of the 2016 election, for example, national debate champion Ted Cruz was no match for Trump.

For Biden, he’s built his brand on “I’m not Trump” through a combination of empathy and kindness; therefore, being mean, interrupting and shouting aren’t options in the debate.

There are two styles best suited for Biden. First, he should use humor. Contrary to what may be popular opinion, Joe Biden has always been witty. Using humor to attack, mock and belittle Trump’s five weapons is an assertive and clever way to both defend against attacks and take the offensive in any debate against a norm-violating Trump. Literally, mock Trump’s ridiculous arguments. Biden’s already been doing this. He should continue that in the debates.

The same is true with being insulted or interrupted. Biden knows this will happen. He should have a few well-timed comebacks centered, not on specifics, but on the general notion of Trump’s lies and interruptions.

The best part, and my second style tip for Biden: Quotes. Use Trump’s own words against him during the debate. Quote him liberally. In Trump’s fun house world, there’s always a tweet or previous statement where he contradicts himself. After all, as he can remind Trump, “Those aren’t my words. Those words were spoken by YOU.” And if Biden isn’t quoting Trump, then he should be quoting those close to Trump (Republicans, family members, etc.). Imagine using quotes from Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham – both of whom turned from Trump skeptics to his supporters – in a debate against Trump. Imagine using former members of Trump’s own administration or estranged family in a debate against Trump.

The bonus of this strategy: Biden remains above it all. And Biden can use this endlessly. “Those were the words of your former defense secretary … your former chief of staff … your former national security adviser … your biggest ally in the Senate…” Wouldn’t that be fun! Using Republicans and allies is more persuasive than citing Democrats when criticizing Trump to his face. He cannot so easily dismiss them as “never Trumpers.”

As for the content, Trump has telegraphed all his talking points already. In rallies, Fox News interviews and the ABC News town hall, Trump’s never changed. It’s full speed ahead for him with the exact same lines and lies – CNN fact-checking whiz Daniel Dale or not.

Plus, Trump, according to an NBC News report, believes he doesn’t need to do the typical debate preparation, which means any basic level of debate prep should guarantee an argumentative victory for Biden on voting issues like the best way to handle the pandemic, the economy and allegiance to our military.

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    Winning the substance of a debate against Trump is the easy part. However, Biden still needs to focus on message discipline. He must simplify his responses so his thoughts don’t meander, while also finishing his statements without abruptly stopping in mid-sentence – both bad habits he needs to lose.

    Trump is a no-rules street debater. His strategy of interrupting, dishonesty, rudeness and not answering the questions require a different game plan from Biden. If he fails to adjust his strategy, Biden might still “technically” win the debates, but he’ll have lost a great chance at putting this election away.