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Opinion: Why Biden’s eager to debate Trump


Opinion by Julian Zelizer, CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have both accepted an invitation from CNN to debate on June 27, nearly four years since they last clashed onstage. Biden, who was first to accept the invitation Wednesday morning, posted on X: “I’ve received and accepted an invitation from @CNN for a debate on June 27. Over to you, Donald. As you said: anywhere, anytime, any place.” Trump later told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins he also accepted. The June date, much earlier in the general election cycle than usual, is a reflection of the growing importance of early voting as well as the voracious appetite for political news on cable television and social media.

And later Wednesday morning, both men said they also accepted an invitation from ABC to a second debate on September 10.

For the first time in decades, whether there would even be debates had been uncertain. During the Republican primaries, Trump refused to debate his opponents in the five GOP debates that were hosted from August 2023 to last January, hoping to make them seem beneath him. He preferred to get his own airtime on social media and Fox News. But Trump can’t resist a chance to take on the president.

Biden seems confident as well. After all, he took the stage twice in 2020 and won. He wants to do it again. Trump seems to be tempted to go mano a mano and show that he is better fit to be commander in chief. Although challengers are frequently more eager to debate than incumbents, Biden is likely feeling more pressure than usual to perform on the national stage given concerns within the Democratic Party and among moderates about his age and polls showing he is trailing Trump in some swing states. Moreover, while incumbent presidents normally enjoy far more attention than those seeking to replace them, in this election the fact that Trump is a former president and one who is able to command ongoing media attention makes the debates more important for Biden.

The debates will not take place according to the schedule preferred by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a sign of how campaigns are seeking as much control as possible over these high-stakes performances and are uneasy with having to follow the rules set up by the nonpartisan body. Trump has also frequently expressed his distrust of the nonpartisan commission, which he says is biased against him.

Televised presidential debates are still a relatively new phenomenon in American history. The first televised debate took place on September 26, 1960, as then-Senator John Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon famously squared off in a series of encounters that some experts credited with swinging the election in JFK’s favor.

Then there was a break until 1976, when President Gerald Ford took on former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. One of the three debates featured a genre-defining gaffe when Ford seemed to be saying that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe. Another debate became famous when the sound equipment broke down, and both candidates stood essentially frozen in front of the cameras for almost a half hour.

Televised debates remained a central part of the election cycle. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan used the airtime to shoot down concerns about his age, telling the moderators, the audience and his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, that “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In 1992, President George H.W. Bush stumbled by looking at his watch in the middle of a town hall debate with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and third-party candidate Ross Perot.

One of the biggest changes that took place in campaigns was who determined the structure. The League of Women Voters, which sponsored these debates from 1976 to 1984, withdrew in 1988. The debates then took shape through the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Many critics dismiss the current debates as irrelevant. They argue that these contests are shallow, made-for-television (and now social media) spectacles that involve soundbite-ready insults and non-answers to substantive questions. Over the years, the staging of the debates has also become more of a show, as news-centered cable and network stations play a bigger role in staging and promoting them.

But the debates still matter, and it is important that Biden and Trump will square off. For all their flaws, the debates still offer voters the best opportunity to see the people running for extended periods of time and in the least-scripted interaction that will take place. It is often possible to learn a great deal about the character and stamina of the candidates through how they perform. Just the way that the candidates fight each other gives a good flavor about how they conduct their business (see Trump menacingly prowling around the stage behind Hillary Clinton in 2016).

During the 2020 election, Biden was effective during the debates, pushing back against claims that he was too old for the presidency. Trump revealed much about himself, such as when he refused to condemn White supremacists and told the far-right group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which they did until January 6, 2021.

Next month, President Biden will have an opportunity to demonstrate that concerns about his age are misplaced. Former President Trump will have a chance to prove that he has some kind of compelling vision for the country beyond his desire to take down his opponents and the establishment. Both men will have the chance to cut into the weaknesses of each other, trying to set to tenor for the debate that is to come.

When voters feel that they know the two candidates so well, as is the case in 2024, watching them on stage will offer a reality check about what is real and what is fake, and remind voters of what each man would be like in a second term.

There are also many questions still to be settled, including the specific rules that will be used since the commission won’t set them and whether third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. should participate (CNN’s rules include that he must reach 15% in the polls, a figure he hasn’t reached).

As ugly as the contest is likely to be, it is better for the nation that we have debates. For the moment, at least, it will give crucial information about the candidates to the voters, who won’t only have to rely on the world of surrogates, influencers and social media commentators to make sense of what’s going on.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Politics

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