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Debate Tonight: Does Trump or Biden Have the Most to Lose?

The roles and circumstances have reversed since the last time they faced off.

by | Jun 27, 2024 | Articles, Good Reads, Opinion, Politics

To understand the stakes of tonight’s first-ever, earliest-ever debate between a sitting president and a former commander-in-chief, you need to review just how much things have changed since the last time Donald Trump and Joe Biden went head-to-head on the debate stage almost four years ago. It would be fair to say the political landscape has turned upside down since that last confrontation between the two and the explosively controversial election of 2020 tainted by the pandemic, riots, and radical changes to voting laws across the land.

On January 20, 2021, the day Donald Trump departed Washington and Joe Biden took the oath of office, almost nobody would – or could – have possibly predicted the reversal of fortune that would ensue for both men. In the wake of his outspoken challenges to the outcome of the election and the Capitol riot, Trump had been brought lower than ever, and the prospect of him seeking the presidency again seemed fanciful at best. And all Biden had to do to succeed as he was cheered on by the establishment was not be Donald Trump, make good on his fundamental pledge to unite the country, and return it to a state of “normalcy,” i.e. the way it was before Trump took the stage.

But he has failed to do all three, vilifying half the country as “semi-fascists,” advancing every progressive issue du jour, opening the border, sending his progressive prosecutors after Trump and leaving people flummoxed at rising costs and interest rates that have forced changes to their lifestyle. So, will a decent debate performance wash away all of that? Most on the right and left long viewed Joe Biden as a mediocrity, a willing supplicant for the uniparty establishment, a largely unprincipled careerist like his own Vice President Kamala Harris. But if he was even effective enough to rise to the level of mediocre, he would not be in the perilous situation he finds himself in now.

Debating in Desperation

For all the talk of how there will be no audience tonight and the candidates microphones will be muted when the other man is speaking, the significance of this debate centers not around the rules, but on why this debate is occurring a full 100 days before Election Day. There has been some speculation that the reason for it coming so early is not because of Biden’s need to shake up a race he is losing, but to give Democrats time to figure out what to do if Biden flunks the debate test. Since we are no longer in the days of the old smoke-filled rooms, it is almost impossible to figure out what the party will do if it looks like Biden is a certain loser and it is forced to turn to a last-minute savior. Would switching to someone like Governors Gavin Newsom of California or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan (or yes, Michelle Obama) instantly provide a shot in the arm for Democrats? Or would it project a sense of disorder that will only harm the party’s already cloudy prospects for the top of the ticket?

New banner Memo - From the Desk of Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner 1Four years before the first Trump-Biden confrontation, voters in 2016 had grown weary and anxious about the so-called normal state of affairs and rolled the dice on someone willing to speak unvarnished truth to power, unafraid to unmask the people and institutions who had become unresponsive to the needs of everyday Americans outside the DC beltway. But in the fog of 2020, it was easy to set aside the two pillars of the Trump presidency that in normal times should have granted him a second term: peace and prosperity. But there’s that word normal again. There has been nothing normal about politics since Donald Trump descended the golden escalator.

But now, unlike in 2020, voters have a chance to weigh the relative merits of the two administrations, rather than take Biden’s word about the superior policies he would implement, and how he would “restore the soul of America” by removing Donald Trump from office. Little did we know that the basis of this soul-cleansing would be his sanction or orchestration of a series of legal actions designed to bankrupt and imprison his predecessor and possible successor.

How Much Difference Can One Debate Make?

We know that elite media will score this debate a victory for Biden if he simply makes it through the proceedings. But how about the viewers? Will they be satisfied with Biden just being able to stand upright for 90 minutes, not commit any egregious gaffes, not frighteningly freeze up as he has on at least two occasions in public recently, or not act like the angry old man demanding your dog be removed from his lawn as in his State of the Union address? Will it be enough to convince voters that they must have misunderstood or even mis-seen (to make a word) this president’s stumbling, mumbling, and bumbling? Was his frozen stare and motionless body not truly indicative of a serious problem? Is his old-man shuffle consistent with dementia-ridden elders not as important as previously thought?

When the voters see the oldest president in history, the quintessential career politician on the stage tonight defending the status quo after a full week of debate prep from no less than 16 advisors, will they be reminded of why they rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016? After all, Biden and Clinton are opposite sides of the same coin, both patented products of the DC establishment. We don’t know to what lengths Hillary might have gone to cling to power after one term, but Joe Biden is so unwilling to give up the power of the presidency that he willingly submits himself to constant ridicule for his failing policies and embarrassingly obvious cognitive decline.

In the endlessly complicated business of politics, there are some things that are simple to understand. And one of them is that an incumbent president does not call for debates, especially not before either candidate is even officially nominated at their party conventions, if he is confident of victory. Such demands for debates ordinarily come from challengers looking to elevate their stature and fortunes by appearing across the stage from the sitting president. But Biden’s surprisingly early call for two debates – the second one currently set for September 10 on ABC – is what poker players would call a clear tell: Biden knows he’s in trouble, and is counting on this debate to stanch the bleeding.

Trump, on the other hand, has Biden pretty much where he wants him. In 2020, the 45th president had a record to defend in the midst of a pandemic in which it was so easy to blame him for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Almost any president’s administration can be made to look bad when the media is playing along. This time, it is Biden who must defend his record, with Trump on the offensive. Considering Biden’s approval has tanked on every issue except abortion, that represents nothing less than a sea change. Add to that a Trump campaign far more disciplined than his last two, even as their candidate remains a perpetual loose cannon, advising Trump that he must merely appear somewhat presidential, remind people of how inflation, illegal immigration, crime, and anti-semitism have all reached dangerous levels under Biden. And he must go hard after this president’s blatant lies in their last debate, when he pulled a Sergeant Schultz by claiming to know nothing about his now-convicted son’s shady business dealings, and cited 51 prominent deep-state officials saying the infamous Hunter Biden laptop had all the earmarks of Russian disinformation. Fast forward four years – and the laptop was entered in evidence at Hunter’s trial. Trump has so many lines of attack that he did not possess in 2020, when Joe Biden was merely a prospective chief executive. Which he chooses – and how he prosecutes the case – will be critical to the audience’s perception of his potential return to the Oval Office.

Even leftist media admits that Trump will be facing a three-headed opponent tonight, with co-moderators Dana Bash and particularly Jake Tapper undoubtedly undergirding Biden’s arguments with questions and observations unfavorable to Trump. The challenge for this pair of nakedly anti-Trump moderators is to hide their animosity behind sufficient nuance to convince neutral and undecided observers that they are not putting their thumbs on the scale.

Much has been made this year of the so-called double-haters, voters who want to cast a ballot but would have to hold their nose to vote for either Trump or Biden. Which direction will they move after the debate? Well, like most people in presidential elections, they generally vote in their own self-interest. Even if they might prefer to have Joe Biden over for dinner, it does not mean they are willing to overlook the multiple crises unleashed on his watch that have inflated the cost of living and threatened their essential safety and security. It’s been said that 90% of life is just showing up. Will it be enough for Joe Biden tonight?

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