The defining trait of a 2020 presidential election otherwise defined by disruption, disease and unease has been the uncanny stability of its core metrics: Joseph R. Biden Jr. has held a substantial and steady, if not insurmountable, lead over President Trump for months.
The first face-to-face debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump ushers in the Black Swan season of American politics, a time when the unpredictable becomes the commonplace.
The president did not perform especially well in his first debate against Hillary Clinton four years ago, but he won the election anyway, and in shocking fashion. Mr. Biden has (thus far) proven himself to be a more elusive target but he is a shakier, less limber debater than Mrs. Clinton, unnerving even his loyal supporters.
Yet there is no guarantee that Mr. Trump’s trusty wingmen — uncertainty and chaos — will not turn on him this time around. In 2016, Mr. Trump faced Mrs. Clinton’s searing questioning of his fitness to serve, but in 2020 he is facing his own tax returns. Complexity often dilutes the impact of big scoops, but the complex accounting The New York Times released of his humbling financial history can also be reduced to a single, tweet-able nugget: $750, as in the total amount the billionaire paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.
Mr. Biden pounced on that report hours before the debate, releasing his family’s 2019 tax returns voluntarily to mark the contrast. They revealed that Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, paid about $300,000, which had reporters pulling up their iPhone calculators to determine how much bigger his payment was (it was roughly 400 times as large).
What makes the tax story especially dangerous for Mr. Trump is that it feeds the larger narrative hammered out metronomically by the Biden campaign: that of a “Scranton vs. Park Avenue” race between a middle-class regular guy and a selfish oligarch who failed to address a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
In that sense, the terms of Tuesday’s debate are very clear, if the outcome is anything but.
Mr. Biden is likely to bring every discussion (if he maintains message discipline) back to the coronavirus — and Mr. Trump will try to answer for himself, and counterattack by raising the specter of urban unrest, questions about Hunter Biden, and his baseless accusation that Mr. Biden is either a) taking drugs or b) suffering from a mental disability that could use some medication: Covid-19 vs. non compos mentis.
It is likely to get ugly, if Tuesday’s pregame sparring was any indication.
Mr. Trump’s supporters, in a storm of unfounded accusations against Mr. Biden, accused him of trying to rig the rules of the debate to compensate for his mental shortcomings. Some spread rumors he would be wearing a hidden earpiece to receive secret help during the debate. At one point early Tuesday, a Fox News host had to cut off Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been helping prepare Mr. Trump for the debate, for offering a medical diagnosis of Mr. Biden.
About 90 minutes before the debate, Mr. Biden poked fun at the earpiece flap and Mr. Trump’s demands for drug testing, posting on Twitter a photo of a pair of earbuds and a container of ice cream. “It’s debate night,” Mr. Biden wrote, “so I’ve got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready.”
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