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Trump Facing High Hurdles in Debate vs Biden

The deck is stacked against the 45th president.

As next Thursday’s debate between two presidents approaches, the prevailing sentiment among political analysts on both sides – with good reason – is that both the network hosting the debate and the new rules agreed upon by the two campaigns are heavily skewed in favor of Joe Biden.

For starters, despite Trump and Republicans’ previous pledge to stop participating in debates on nakedly hostile networks, they agreed to this first general election debate on a network largely defined by its anti-Trump bias: CNN. This presents an obvious and unique challenge for the 45th president. Like his network in general, co-moderator Jake Tapper has been virulently anti-Trump from the moment he descended that golden escalator eight years ago. Both campaigns have submitted their preferred topics, but what are the chances Tapper and co-moderator Dana Bash will play it straight, pick issues favorable to Trump, and hammer 46 as hard as 45? To expect their transparent bias not to seep into their questioning is to wish upon a star.

Then there are the rules, many of which have left Republicans – and some Democrats – shaking their heads. Each candidate’s microphone will be muted when the other is speaking. “I don’t love it from a debate perspective, but from a who does this benefit perspective, it clearly benefits Biden,” former CNN political analyst Chris Cillizza told The Daily Caller. “Because if you go back and look at the debates they had … in 2020 between Biden and Trump, Trump just talks and talks and talks and talks … Trump just tries to get you off your pace, off your rhythm, off your game…”

This mic-muting means either man can make wild claims or pass fake information – think Biden insisting that inflation was at 9% at the start of his presidency when it was actually 1.4% – without being interrupted. But at the same time, with no chance of interruption from the bombastic billionaire, Biden will be on his own to sink or swim – a frightening prospect for many Democrats. Either way, with a live mic only on the candidate speaking, both men will have more time than usual to plan their retorts.

A Silent Debate

If muting the candidates’ mics weren’t enough to quiet the set in Atlanta, there is another controversial rule agreed upon by the two campaigns that should hush the proceedings even further: no audience, like some of the pandemic-era debates. This is thought to favor Biden because of the famously raucous nature of Trump supporters. Candidates ordinarily feed off audience reactions to know whether or not they have scored points and should carry their argument further or switch gears, but they will not have such assistance this time around. At the same time, it could also mean this debate will be more about substance than style, more policy and less ad hominem attacks, as both men will be more focused without crowd noise and the accompanying theatrics.

There will be two commercial breaks during the debate, a rule which most obviously favors Biden because he will be able to, shall we say, restore his vitality and do a clean-up on aisle three if he commits a gaffe(s). After widespread claims that Biden was “juiced up” during his fiery State of the Union address, Trump demanded a drug test before the debate but was turned down, a point he is likely to make to the massive TV audience. Nothing written is allowed to be brought on stage, but notes can be taken during the proceedings. Perhaps Biden will quickly jot down his key talking points right away so as not to rely on his famously faulty memory. Trump might do the same.

Gag Me with a Spoon

Trump also faces another unique disadvantage. Since the news about him recently has revolved around his conviction by a Manhattan judge and jury, we might expect the former president to address that issue and repeat his claims of a rigged verdict. But he will not be able to do so in robust fashion for both practical and legal reasons. He remains under a gag order, meaning anything but the most general observations carry the threat of fines or jail time. He is specifically prohibited from discussing witnesses, prosecutors, and court staff – except Judge Juan Merchan. Trump has already been fined for violating the order, with Merchan warning that another violation would mean jail time for the 45th president. And remember, Trump will not be sentenced until July 11 – 14 days after the debate – and so like any other person found guilty, Trump is not likely to further infuriate the judge who has the power to throw him in jail.

The way the two candidates are preparing for the debate speaks to their stark differences in not just ideology but style. While Trump is out on the campaign trail, holding rallies and attacking Biden at every turn, Biden is holed up at Camp David digging deep on policy. “The president has gotten increasingly punchier in recent remarks about Trump and plans to carry that theme through to the debate,” an unnamed Biden campaign official told CNN. Each candidate is expected to focus on holding the other accountable – Trump attacking Biden on the economy, inflation, the border, crime, and foreign wars, Biden in turn claiming Trump is a rabid anti-abortionist, authoritarian and demonstrable “threat to democracy” in the wake of 1/6/21.

On one level, this debate should almost be unnecessary. After five decades each on the public stage, 99+% of the American people know both these men inside and out. And yet, with Trump’s legal travails and Biden’s cognitive condition weighing so heavily on the minds of voters, this figures to be as important a debate as we have ever witnessed.  A new poll conducted by Puck News reveals that 63% of Americans plan to tune in. That would amount to more than 200 million viewers in the US alone.

This is where the rubber meets the road, where the fall campaign essentially begins with the earliest general election debate in history – before either candidate is even officially nominated. It will undoubtedly trigger many a narrative for the remainder of the campaign. Could it be all over for Biden if he freezes up, misspeaks, or mumbles as he has more frequently in recent weeks? Can he get through 90 minutes – including breaks – without displaying his increasingly evident decline? Can Trump appear disciplined and presidential enough to avoid being drawn into excessive bombast by an opponent convinced he can bate Trump into doing just that? But perhaps the most pressing question is whether Donald Trump will be successful in overcoming rules that appear to favor Biden and even more so, the CNN deck inevitably stacked against him.

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