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Debate terms favor Biden

Donald Trump has been challenging Joe Biden to a debate for months, so maybe it was the fear of being accused of insincerity that led Trump’s team to summarily accept without provisos the terms the president laid out for two forthcoming debates — terms that lopsidedly favor the incumbent. Or perhaps the former president and his team are possessed of such wild self-confidence that they don’t believe there are any conditions that could lead Biden to emerge from a debate the consensus victor. That’s the impression Trump conveyed in remarks he provided to a Fox News reporter when he accepted Biden’s challenge.

“Crooked Joe Biden is the worst debater I have ever faced,” Trump said on Wednesday. “He can’t put two sentences together.” As efforts to prepare the information space ahead of the debate go, this is precisely the wrong approach to take.

It seems that Trump learned no lessons from Biden’s performance in his February State of the Union Address. There, the president just barely met the absurdly low expectations set for his performance by doing little more than failing to spontaneously combust before a joint session of Congress. Biden was reasonably lucid and displayed just enough observable vigor to convince skeptics that he had one last campaign left in him. The unearned jolt of relief-fueled enthusiasm in which Democrats reveled merely because Biden was capable of reading a teleprompter for 90 minutes was an outgrowth of his opponents’ failure to manage expectations.

There are plenty of risks for Biden in the upcoming debates. There will be verbal flubs, memory lapses, and half-truths or outright falsehoods the president seems to have fully internalized. But if the standard set for his success is merely to string “two sentences together,” Biden will more than meet that measure. Much like the State of the Union, the president will be well-rested and primed with all the requisite medications necessary to ensure that he turns in an energetic performance. Trump and company should not be lowering the expectations for Biden ahead of the debate but raising them. They would be better served by preparing the country for an atypically strong performance from the president.

We all know that Biden can perform at par when he and his team are focused on one event, they might say. But the presidency is a 24-hour job, and we’ve all seen how Biden succumbs to the stresses that accompany a tenure in the White House. With weeks to prepare, Biden may be up for one debate, but he’s not up to the presidency. That’s what we should be hearing from the Trump camp.

Instead, the former president and his allies are projecting supreme self-regard verging on overconfidence. But the terms to which Trump agreed ensure that he will be deprived of the audience, on whose energy he thrives. He will not benefit from friendly moderators, and he will be deprived of the ability to engage in a direct and conversational back-and-forth with Biden. Trump will have to be prepared for a formal disquisition bereft of the theatrics he loves. That will be a challenge. If Trump is convinced that he’ll win the coming debate in a walk only because Joe Biden can be counted on to melt in the heat of the klieg lights, that’s a big bet. Perhaps even a fatal one.

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