The presidential debate set for Tuesday night between Joe Biden and Donald Trump could have a more limited effect than usual — if the goal is to persuade citizens based on new information.
The big reveal by The New York Times about the president's paltry income-tax payments the year he was elected and in his first year in office highlights a long-running question. Does Trump underpay what he owes the IRS to avoid sharing the massive cost of his own government with the "little people"?
Or do his debts perhaps give him more incentive for self-dealing on the job?
Whenever the questions pop out in this first 90-minute face-off, Biden is expected to craft them as Trumpian corruption. Expect Trump to deny the obvious, blame Democrats and generally keep up the stonewalling and deflection on this subject.
Debates rarely generate or resolve game-changing issues and facts. The enormous single and proved fact of the COVID-19 pandemic overshadows the others.
Insider speculation has focused in recent days on whether Trump, in trying to caricature Biden as "out of it," has set the bar too low for his opponent.
Biden may only need to sound sentient to exceed the expectations hyped by Trump, whose carnival-barker conjecture about whether Biden is on performance-enhancing drugs echoed the unfounded assertions he made against Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago.
It's doubtful such chatter matters. Most of the audience comes to its live-network and livestream viewing pre-polarized.
Besides, Clinton gained in polls after those debates but ended up losing in the Electoral College. One need only remember the iconic image of Trump tensely ripping up a page of his notes immediately after one face-off on Oct. 19, 2016, to recall which candidate looked like the winner.
It is common for both sides to proclaim victory after a debate. Late Tuesday, the opposing camps will quickly post video clips to convey partisan messages. The campaigns feed them to their respective echo chambers.
Biden is reputably gaffe-prone, hesitant and inaccurate. But his missteps could be eclipsed by Trump's habitual fabrications of success and unhinged denunciations of others.
Attacks on family members could generate more heat than light.
The lack of a studio audience could give the show less of a cage-match atmosphere than it otherwise might have had. Still, the candidates' stylistic contrasts will be on clear display.
Chris Wallace of Fox News will moderate, adding the presence of an anchor who works for a Republican-tilted network but who effectively grills Trump & Co. in on-air interviews.
Some viewers will watch the debate as they would a NASCAR race, rooting for a favorite driver, but with an eye toward crashes and crackups.