Trump Taunts Biden Over Fall Debates

May 02, 2024

When President Biden told Howard Stern last Friday that he’d be “happy to debate” Donald Trump, the former president immediately responded on Truth Social: “Everyone knows he doesn’t really mean it, but in case he does, I say, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME, ANYPLACE.”

They may or may not agree to participate in the three events proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. These would take place Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos, Oct. 1 at Virginia State in Petersburg, and Oct. 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

After the Stern interview, Team Trump tried pressuring the commission to move up its schedule and add more debates. When the commission refused, the Trump campaign invited networks to host debates independently “as soon as possible.” That won’t go anywhere, not least because Mr. Biden would never agree.

Still, Mr. Trump gained two small advantages from the back-and-forth around the Stern interview. First, he took the opportunity to build public interest in seeing the two men tangle. Voters like presidential debates and now expect them. And while Mr. Trump is capable of blowing himself up, it’s likely he’d do well against the obviously ancient Mr. Biden.

Second, if debates don’t materialize, last week’s moment of controversy helped build the case that it’ll be Mr. Biden’s fault. This could hurt him with voters, especially if journalists press the president on why he ducked a chance to go head to head with his opponent in a live event. To be sure, it didn’t hurt Mr. Trump when he skipped out on the GOP’s five 2024 primary debates. But unlike Mr. Trump in the primaries, Mr. Biden isn’t the overwhelming favorite in November.

Still, even if ducking the debates would hurt Mr. Biden, it’s difficult to see how participating in them would help him. Maybe expectations are so low that a passable performance would draw rave press reviews and grudging acceptance from swing voters. But his public appearances are riddled with gaffes, verbal missteps and incoherent sentences. Mr. Trump can also make unhinged comments, but he usually shows more energy. 

Let’s hope presidential debates take place anyway. They’ve played an important role in U.S. democracy. Sen. John F. Kennedy’s telegenic appearance in 1960 helped him win a razor-thin election. President Gerald Ford’s blooper in October 1976 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” stopped his upward movement. And in 1980’s sole debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Reagan parried Mr. Carter’s attacks with grace and wit, causing undecided voters to swing into his column.

Debates aren’t always decisive. President Barack Obama recovered from a disastrous first one with Mitt Romney in 2012 and won easily. Sen. John McCain probably wouldn’t have won in 2008 if he had been one of history’s greatest orators. The same for Walter Mondale in 1984. But in a tight race like this one, debates could really swing things. 

It’s true that in the last two elections, the quality of these events declined, due mostly to Mr. Trump, a man of unregulated emotions. Debates now have an air of spectacle more appropriate to reality television than to a great nation choosing its leader. We have mobs of donors and cheerleaders, party bigwigs and corporate underwriters in a gigantic auditorium, hooting and hollering, with “special guests” invited to unsettle the other side. It’s distracting and juvenile.

So why not return to how it all began? The first presidential debates between the parties’ nominees, Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, were done in small TV studios. Only the moderator, a panel of journalists and a handful of network executives were present.

Read More at the WSJ

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