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Biden debating Trump still not a sure thing

Donald Trump, who ducked debates during the Republican primary, now says he will debate Joe Biden “anytime, anywhere.” Biden, who also ducked debates during the Democratic primary and scrapped the final debate in 2020, now says he is ready to agree to debates: “Make my day, pal. . . . I’ll even do it twice.” For now, the campaigns say that they have agreed to an initial debate on June 27 on CNN and a second debate on ABC on September 10.

I warned last fall that we shouldn’t assume any debates would happen this year, and that Trump ducking the Republican debates was forfeiting the high ground that could be used to make it costlier for Biden to back out. I will believe we are having debates when I see them. This race is between two very old men who struggle verbally. We have one candidate whose doctors don’t want him walking, and one whose lawyers don’t want him talking.

That said, there is political risk in appearing afraid to debate. The recent movement of the two candidates toward an agreement to debate suggests that both of them realize that they need to appear willing to debate the other. Also, the side that thinks it is losing knows that there is more risk in not debating, and Trump’s persistent leads in the polls have started to sink in enough to worry Team Biden.

But consider the incentives to bail out. Start with the fact that the candidate who’s ahead won’t want to debate. Right now, that’s Trump. By the fall, it might be Biden. In the primaries, it was both of them. Either way, the incentive to debate drops on one side in proportion to how it rises on the other.

Sure, neither candidate will want to take the heat for just pulling out. But these are not exactly two candidates who have been unwilling to break norms in the past when they thought it would help them — Biden has some gall in hitting Trump for ducking primary debates when Biden did the same thing. Either will gleefully use some pretext to claim that the debate system was being rigged against them, and their supporters will eat it up. Moreover, both campaigns have thus far operated as if firing up their own supporters is the only thing in this election.

Even aside from the pre-existing Biden narrative that the president shouldn’t dignify his opponents with a platform, there will be no shortage of available pretexts, because both sides will be jockeying to control how the debates are staged. Biden has finally done what Republican campaigns have flirted with for years: he’s rejecting the role of the Commission on Presidential Debates. That means that everything about the debates — timing, moderators, rules, crowds, third-party access to the stage — will be negotiated directly between the two campaigns. The Biden campaign’s letter to the commission highlights several of the potential sources of disagreement. Consider:

Timing: Biden wants one debate in late June and one in early September, instead of three debates in October. He complains — ironically, given the Democrats’ enthusiasm for early voting — that October debates occur after people have started to vote. (This probably saved John Fetterman in 2022, when his catastrophically incoherent debate performance came very late in October). He has a point, although the better response is to not have people voting three or four weeks before the election. Reducing the number of debates and putting them earlier in the year is a way to make them lower-stakes affairs. In 1980, for example, the single Reagan-Carter debate a week before the election was watched by 80 million people out of the 100 million who voted, and almost certainly contributed in a big way to a race that polled closely turning into a 44-state rout. Also, spreading the debates months apart means Biden has a lot of time to prepare and recharge his batteries — as we have seen, when Biden needs to act presidential for a few hours in a row on national TV, he can do it, but he needs a lot of downtime before and after it. And if Biden’s organizational and fundraising advantages, perhaps combined with a Trump conviction, put Biden ahead in the fall, denying Trump an October debate freezes the race. But in each case, the incentives of the Trump camp will be to resist what Biden wants.
Moderators: Biden demands that the debates be on a network that hosted one of the 2016 GOP or 2020 Democratic primary debates. That limits the roster mostly to venues friendly to Biden (such as CNN and ABC). He also demands that the network moderators be “selected by the broadcast host from among their regular personnel.” There’s no way that Trump is going to agree to the press picking the moderator without the input of the campaigns.

Rules: Biden wants a very strictly moderated debate, with no interruptions or cross-talk, strict time limits, and the candidates’ microphones muted while the other side is speaking. This is a wonderful illustration of hypocrisy: Biden’s signature move in the 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan was to shout over the start and end of every Ryan answer, but now that Biden is a frail old man who loses his train of thought easily — and he’s facing a bully rather than a polite and reasonable man — he wants protection against his own tactics. Notably, he doesn’t demand that the moderators be barred from interjecting or taking sides. Again, Trump’s incentives will be quite different — he prefers a raucous spectacle.

Crowds: Speaking of spectacles, Biden wants a debate without a live audience. Again, he does have a point: The audience (or worse yet, town-hall questioners) is far more often a distraction than an asset. He may be worried about a repeat of 2016, when Trump brought Juanita Broaddrick (who accused Bill Clinton of raping her) as a prop to a debate with Hillary Clinton. Trump, again, will have the opposite incentive.

Third Party Candidates: This may be the biggest sticking point: Biden wants a two-candidate debate in order to freeze out Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. That’s probably Biden’s main reason for breaking with the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has objective rules for deciding when a third-party candidate qualifies — that’s how Ross Perot got onstage in 1992. The issue is not a new one. RFK Jr.’s decision to go third party was itself premised in good part on Biden’s refusal to debate him in the primary. The 1980 campaign is again instructive. It was a fight during the Republican primary between Reagan and George H. W. Bush about Bush demanding a one-on-one debate and Reagan wanting the whole GOP field onstage that led to Reagan’s famous “I paid for this microphone” moment in New Hampshire. In the fall, Carter refused to debate with John Anderson on stage, so Reagan debated Anderson and Carter in separate events. Biden and his partisans may talk a good game about how they think RFK Jr. draws as much from Trump as from Biden — and they may even be right. But they have consistently acted as if Kennedy, a lifelong man of the left and creature of the Democratic Party, is a greater threat to Biden because he gives people an option to bail on Biden without pulling the lever for Trump. If the Trump campaign shares that assumption (as it appears to), there will likely be a fight over the microphone.

I don’t weep for the Commission on Presidential Debates, which after all is just a conduit for the two campaigns and doesn’t have any real source of its own institutional legitimacy. But by discarding it, Biden has taken off the gloves in what is likely to be a bare-knuckles clash between the campaigns, as each grapples for a pretext to blame the other for the debates not happening.

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