The Memo: Why Biden and Trump agreed to debate

The 2024 presidential race took a sharp turn Wednesday when both major candidates quickly agreed to two televised debates — the first of which will happen next month.

President Biden and former President Trump will take part in a CNN debate on June 27 in Atlanta. They will clash again on Sept. 10, at a location yet to be determined, in an ABC News event.

The deal was struck with unusual speed after Biden posted a social media video Wednesday morning goading Trump to “make my day” by accepting a debate. “I hear you’re free on Wednesdays,” Biden added — a reference to the schedule of the former president’s criminal trial in New York.

Trump accepted almost immediately. Trump also took to social media to call Biden “the WORST debater I have ever faced,” claiming he “can’t put two sentences together.”

Beyond the macho taunts, there are real reasons why each man is eager for the debates — and sooner rather than later. But there are legitimate risks, too.

Biden’s willingness to debate as early as next month betrays a desire to change the current trajectory of the race.

Nationally, the election looks extremely close, but most battleground state polls read more bleakly for the president. In a series of New York Times/Siena College polls released Monday, Trump led Biden among registered voters in five of six battleground states.

Biden’s approval rating is a mediocre 40.4 percent in the average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ), further deepening Democratic gloom.

But Democrats believe the electorate will recoil from Trump once he fully returns to center stage. They think his uncouth antics will remind voters of the chaos he almost always brings in his wake. And they feel the public’s focus on the issues will grow sharper over time, to Biden’s benefit.

An early debate can help accelerate all of those goals.

Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina and a member of the Biden campaign’s national finance committee, acknowledged that, right now, the president’s speeches and ads boasting of the stronger elements of his record may not be fully resonating.

But, Harpootlian asserted, “Trump is uniquely unqualified to be reelected. He can talk politics or whatever, but as a human being? Put him next to Joe Biden.”

Harpootlian also claimed that a debate would help Biden by reminding voters that the election is a choice, not an abstract debate about whether they think the president’s record is perfect.

“Ultimately, what everyone is going to see is a binary choice,” Harpootlian said. “Here are the two folks. Here are the pluses for Joe Biden. Here are the minuses for Donald Trump.”

Trump advocates, naturally, don’t see it that way at all.

Most of them believe an early debate provides an enormous opportunity for Trump, especially if Biden were to make a verbal stumble in a way that would underscore concerns about his age. 

Even though Trump, at 77, is only four years younger than Biden, most polls indicate fewer voters are concerned about his cognitive abilities.

Trump allies enthusiastically welcomed the news of the debates for exactly this reason. Kari Lake, the Trump loyalist who is seeking a Senate seat in Arizona, linked to news of Trump accepting the debate with an enthusiastic ”Lets go!!!” post on social media. 

In a follow-up post, Lake hit Biden as “bumbling” and “mentally diminished.”

The scheduling of the first debate could also be to Trump’s liking. 

His criminal trial should be finished well before then, and the debate provides an obvious chance for Trump to turn the page — or to cast a conviction, if it occurs, as illegitimate.

There is another common advantage to the debates for both Biden and Trump: The likely absence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

The rules for the CNN debate exclude any candidate who does not register at least 15 percent support in four national polls that the network deems credible.

It is unlikely that Kennedy will meet that standard. His support appears to have ebbed since the early days of his campaign. In The Hill/DDHQ average, he sits at just under 7 percent support.

On social media, Kennedy complained that Biden and Trump were “trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win.”

There are, to be sure, some potential downsides for the major party candidates.

Even pro-Biden figures like Harpootlian note that, beyond the danger of a Biden “stumble,” the president will have to be careful in calibrating his demeanor toward Trump since anything “too sarcastic, too disdainful” could seem unpresidential.

For Trump, the debate is sure to bring questions about his role around the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot to the fore again. He will also face questions about the other three criminal trials he faces. And he will no doubt be asked if he will accept the outcome of this year’s election.

The first debate will also have no live audience, a detail which is likely to bother Trump more than Biden, given his capacity to feed off crowds. 

Trump’s mockery of Biden could also backfire if the president merely clears a low bar of expectations.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, argued that both Trump and Biden have “a lot to lose,” not least because “neither has done this in a long time.”

Trump boycotted the GOP primary debates this cycle, arguing he was so far ahead the clashes were essentially irrelevant. Biden, who faced only token opposition for the Democratic nomination, did not deign to debate his rivals either.

The long absence of each man from the debate stage will likely only whet the public appetite for the most important moment to date in the 2024 race.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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