Why Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes

Why Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes

Tens of millions of dollars in advertising have done nothing to change President Biden’s poll deficit. The criminal trial against Donald J. Trump has not changed the course of the race. And Mr. Biden’s significant financial and infrastructure advantages have yet to pay off politically.

On Wednesday, the only day of the week that Mr. Trump is not required to be in the courtroom, the Biden campaign caused an uproar by publicly offering to move up the first presidential debate by three months. The move should sooner or later alert Americans to their momentous decision in 2024. Mr. Biden’s advisers have long believed that the looming realization of a rematch between Trump and Biden will be a balm for the president’s declining approval ratings.

The Trump team quickly accepted. And Mr. Trump did Mr. Biden the favor of lowering expectations for his performance, writing on social media that his rival was “the WORST debater I have ever met.” The post was a foretaste of insults to come: Mr Trump accused the president of being unable to “put two sentences together” and called him “crooked” three times.

Mr. Biden’s move early in the debate amounted to a public admission that he is behind in his re-election bid and a bet that an accelerated debate schedule will force voters to refocus on politics and to confront the possibility of Mr. Trump’s return.

But at the same time, proposing the earliest general election debate in television history is a way to mitigate the risk of putting an 81-year-old president on stage live for 90 minutes. By agreeing to two debates instead of the traditional three, the Biden campaign is limiting his visibility. By scheduling the arguments further after Election Day, both candidates have a chance to recover if they stumble.

Mr. Trump, who turns 78 in June and has skipped all Republican primary debates, was eager to meet Mr. Biden on stage, publicly and privately describing him as being disparaged since 2020. Within hours of Mr. Biden’s announcement on Wednesday, both sides had publicly agreed to a June 27 debate on CNN in Atlanta and one with ABC News on September 10.

There is also danger for Mr. Trump because Mr. Biden has performed well in key moments when expectations for him have been low — including the 2020 debates and his recent State of the Union addresses.

By accepting Mr. Biden’s two-debate deal, Mr. Trump lost almost all of his leverage to demand more, although his campaign called for monthly contests and Mr. Trump said he accepted a Fox News debate in October. The Biden campaign made it clear that the president would only attend two.

“President Biden has clearly stated his terms for two individual debates, and Donald Trump has accepted those terms,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the campaign chairwoman. “No more games. No more chaos. No more debate about debates.”

According to four people familiar with the discussions, the surprising speed of the deal was made possible in part because senior officials from the two campaigns were involved in back-channel discussions about debates in advance of the Biden campaign brief. The two campaigns had a shared interest in bypassing the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen events since 1988.

They also both wanted Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump to run head-to-head, without Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or other independent or third-party candidates. Mr Kennedy wrote on social media on Wednesday that his dominant rivals were “colluding”, adding: “They are afraid I will win.”

In a sign of preparation for Wednesday’s announcements, the Biden campaign decided in recent days to postpone a major New York fundraiser scheduled for the evening of June 27.

When the events take place in June and September and no further debates are scheduled, Americans will get a direct look at the two major parties’ presidential candidates before a large majority of voters have access to their ballots. It also gives Mr. Biden a freer hand in scripting the final weeks of his final political campaign, allowing him to focus on turning out early voters without having to prepare for a high-risk event on live television.

For both candidates, the earlier dates provide time to recover from potentially uneven performance.

Presidential debates remain singular events in American politics. More than 73 million people watched the first Biden-Trump debate in 2020 and 84 million watched Mr Trump’s first debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

An unusual aspect of this year’s general election debates is that both candidates will be relatively rusty when sparring on stage.

Typically, the challenger has honed his skills in a series of primary debates. But Mr Trump has decided not to join this year. The last debate attended by Mr Trump or Mr Biden was their last of 2020.

Both men are unpopular in the general election. Recent polls in battleground states by the New York Times, Siena College and Philadelphia Inquirer showed that 40 percent of registered voters viewed Mr. Biden favorably, compared with 45 percent for Mr. Trump. But while the majority of voters have consistently viewed Mr. Trump negatively for years, Mr. Biden was more popular four years ago.

Mr. Biden has become more combative toward Mr. Trump in recent months, delivering a major speech on democracy as well as a Trump-centric State of the Union address the day before the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Both sought to heighten the contrast between the two candidates and the challenges of this year’s election.

And while Mr. Biden is trailing in public and private polls, his campaign still believes he will improve his standing once voters accept the two men as their only realistic presidential options and are reminded of Mr. Trump’s record in office — particularly at Topics like democracy and abortion rights.

The Times/Siena/Inquirer poll found that 17 percent of voters in the six most closely contested states incorrectly believed that Mr. Biden, not Mr. Trump, was responsible for eliminating the constitutional right to abortion.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has spent months mocking Mr. Biden’s mental acuity and questioning his stamina to stand on stage for 90 minutes.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies regret setting the bar so low for Mr. Biden in the past, particularly before his State of the Union address. The president delivered the speech with more vigor than usual, just hours after a Trump super PAC suggested in a television ad that Mr. Biden was so old that he might not survive another term.

Still, prominent supporters of Mr. Trump hardly downplayed his chances in the debates. Fox News’ Sean Hannity predicted that Mr. Trump would “mop the floor” with Mr. Biden. The Trump campaign reposted the clip on social media.

Mr. Biden presented his debate challenge on Wednesday with the kind of machismo that voters are more accustomed to seeing from Mr. Trump. “Well, have a nice day, buddy,” Mr. Biden said in a video posted online. He went on to excoriate Mr. Trump for having to sit in the courtroom four days a week: “I heard you’re off on Wednesday.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign also began selling T-shirts that read, “Free Wednesdays.” It was a departure from the typical Biden stance of not commenting on Mr. Trump’s legal troubles.

As Mr Biden later agreed to the debate on September 10, he wrote on social media: “I will be bringing my plane too. I plan on keeping it for another four years.”

The decision to abandon the debate commission was not a big surprise. Mr. Trump has signaled his willingness to meet with or without a commission. And Mr. Biden’s team was frustrated, if not angry, that Mr. Trump debated Mr. Biden in 2020 even though he appeared to be sick, tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after, and that Mr. Trump’s family was in the audience had taken off their masks.

Some Biden advisers have had the commission in their sights for a long time. A 2015 bipartisan report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, whose authors included Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser, and Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former White House chief of staff, recommended a thorough overhaul.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.

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2024-05-15 19:34:57