scroll to top arrow or icon

The hunt for the killer clip

The hunt for the killer clip
Annie Gugliotta, GZERO

Happy debate night as we all hunker down for the face-to-face rematch in Atlanta of the Age vs. Rage election, now just hours away.

More than anything else tonight at the presidential debate, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be hunting for the one viral video clip that will define their opponent and frame the campaign. For the first time in close to four years, they will share a stage, and millions of people across blue and red states will finally exit their bias-affirming bubbles and tune in collectively to a single program. Just that fact alone — that it’s a moment when tens of millions of people across the hyper-fractured country gather for a common, shared political reality — makes tonight critical.

The three big factors: Age, Rage, and what happens on Stage. Make no mistake, policies and issues are critical and should be the main course tonight. Immigration, inflation, taxes, foreign affairs, abortion stance, and those pesky 34 felonies … all those matter and will be the focus of the moderators' agenda, according to CNN. But since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy faceoff through today’s hyper-accelerated, viral social media culture, the impact of presidential debates has moved from policy to personality, from ideas to image. It is all about “the clip.”

There are different kinds of clips.

The Stumble Clip: Biden is much more vulnerable here because the consensus narrative around him is that, at 81, he’s simply too old for the job. One verbal trip, a name mix-up, a fumble, or one inopportune freeze will have exponentially outsized impact. The worst stumble clip might well be when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran for the Republican nomination in 2011 and famously forgot which government agency he promised to cut. “It is three agencies of government that are gone when I get there," he thundered on live TV. “Commerce, education, and … umm … uh, the, uh … what’s the third one there … let’s see …” He started to fumble desperately and, pressed to name the agency by the moderator, he checked his notes for a lifeline. Only there was nothing there. Perry’s blank space went viral long before Taylor Swift’s, and he finally petered out, mumbling the politically radioactive word: “Oops.” It was over. Biden cannot have a Perry moment.

Even at his best, Biden speaks in a slow, raspy drawl, like the sludge-filled tributaries of the Lackawanna River, which cuts through his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Between awkward pauses, Biden often punctuates his words with sock-hop-era words like “malarkey,” which adds sepia tones to his already vintage vibe struggling to find a place in a hi-def world.

Trump will try to interrupt, even if they mute his mic, to throw Biden off, while attacking the president on the border, the Middle East, and inflation. So, more than anything else, Biden needs to look and sound alert, quick on his feet, on top of the details, and strong.

Though Trump also stumbles, makes multiple factual errors, and gets names wrong, that’s long been baked into his personality. What’s another 34 untruths or 34 stumbles next to his 34 felonies? None of it sticks. The age-related stumble is not Trump’s worry. He has to watch out for another trap: The Chaos Clip.

The Chaos Clip: Trump is the great conductor of political chaos, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. Even fellow Republicans thought that was the end of Trump. It wasn’t. Trump has not only recovered, he’s transformed the Jan. 6 mob into heroes and hostages, a stunning rebranding exercise and one that takes center stage at his rallies. Still, if Trump coughs up a clip about not respecting the election results, lashes out at the justice system to repudiate his 34 felony charges, says he will pull out of NATO, or threatens to drop a nuke on Iran or otherwise destabilize the world order, it could undermine his campaign.

Too much chaos fueled by his bottomless pool of rage and resentment would be deeply damaging. Biden will try to bait him here, and I wonder if he gets so bold as to call Trump a “felon” to his face. Still, Trump loves the stage, doesn’t rely on notes, and if he looks strong, overpowering, and avoids the chaos, it is all upside for him.

The Killer Clip: From Ronald Regan’s famed 1980 zinger, “There you go again” aimed at Jimmy Carter – which 44 years ago seemed nasty and today would barely register – to the 1988 uppercut Lloyd Bentsen landed in the vice presidential debate, telling Dan Quayle “Senator, You are no Jack Kennedy,” this is the sought-after, white whale of political debates. Biden came close in the last debate with his “Will you shut up man,” showing he could punch off the ropes. He will need that again – look for it on Trump’s convictions, abortion, and foreign policy. But no one delivers nastier or more quotable quips than Trump. If he senses Biden is stumbling, he could deliver a killer clip from which Biden might not recover.

So as they hunt for the clip of the night – and as their staff prep as much for the post-debate social media moments as the debate itself – Biden needs to overcome age, Trump needs to contain rage, and both need to avoid a big gaffe on stage.

Can’t wait for 9 p.m. EDT.

We have lots of coverage of the debate for you. Ian Bremmer will be watching, and we will get a video of his insights into a Quick Take video tonight right after the debate, so check our site and social platforms for that. On Friday at 7 a.m., look for GZERO Daily, which will be filled with analysis. At 10 a.m. EDT Friday, I’ll be hosting a live X space with our team and special guests to go over the hits, misses, and the impact of the debate. Join in and it will get spicy.

John Lieber will also have his take on what’s next in our US election video series on Friday. And, oh yes, please play along with our debate bingo, which is a great way to engage with things tonight.


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter