Debates Confirmed

[ Posted Friday, May 17th, 2024 – 14:08 UTC ]

[Editor's Note: for some unfathomable reason, this didn't seem to get properly posted on Wednesday. I guess I just forgot to hit the "Publish" button at the end of the editing process? Well, for whatever the reason, mea culpa maxima and here is the column that should have appeared two days ago, and our apologies for the delay.]


So it's now official: the presidential debates are on! Well, two of them at any rate -- and a lot earlier than normal. On June 27th, before the two men are even officially nominated by their respective parties' national conventions, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump will debate on CNN. Then on September 10th, they will meet again with ABC hosting. There will also be an additional vice-presidential debate, but as of yet no date has been announced for it. And Biden has already indicated that two will be the limit -- there won't be a third or fourth debate, these two will be it for this campaign season.

The interesting thing for policy wonks is that this could be the death knell of the "Commission on Presidential Debates," which has been in charge of (as their name indicates) presidential debates for the past few decades. The commission was created when the League of Women Voters essentially got tired of all the squabbling between the candidates over all the minutiae of the setting, but it now looks like the commission's course may also have run out. This year's debates will be direct agreements between the two campaigns and the media hosts, with no other agency involved -- which could become the new standard way of putting them on (although only time will tell).

While the campaigns of President Joe Biden and Donald Trump had apparently been quietly speaking behind the scenes to hammer out some sort of debate arrangement, Biden's team leaked the news today in order to appear to be the "challenger" in the debates. This is sheer political posturing, since Trump had already said he'd debate Biden "any time, anywhere." Biden released a video today tossing the gauntlet back, while channelling his inner Dirty Harry:

Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020 and since then he hasn't shown up to debate. Now he's acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I'll even do it twice. So let's pick the dates, Donald. I hear you're free on Wednesdays.

This, obviously, is all calculated to get under Trump's skin, especially that "I hear you're free on Wednesdays" dig at the end. In fact, the words "playground pissing contest" immediately sprang to mind when I saw that taunting little video.

As of this writing, all the details have not been fully announced by CNN, so we don't know precisely what the format will be. But we do have lots of hints from a letter the Biden campaign released, which they had sent to the Commission on Presidential Debates, to essentially tell them: "Thanks, but no thanks." In this letter, Team Biden laid out in detail why they would not be working with the commission this time around, which included:

The Commission's model of building huge spectacles with large audiences at great expense simply isn't necessary or conducive to good debates. The debates should be conducted for the benefit of the American voters, watching on television and at home -- not as entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors, who consume valuable debate time with noisy spectacles of approval or jeering. As was the case with the original televised debates in 1960, a television studio with just the candidates and moderators is a better, more cost-efficient way to proceed: focused solely on the interests of voters.

The strong language they used certainly does suggest that this is a deal-breaker for the Biden campaign, although CNN hasn't officially committed to the no-audience format. Later in the letter, the Biden camp further elaborated precisely what they wanted from this year's debates:

The debates should be one-on-one, allowing voters to compare the only two candidates with any statistical chance of prevailing in the Electoral College -- and not squandering debate time on candidates with no prospect of becoming President. The moderator(s) should be selected by the broadcast host from among their regular personnel, so as to avoid a "ringer" or partisan. There should be firm time limits for answers, and alternate turns to speak -- so that the time is evenly divided and we have an exchange of views, not a spectacle of mutual interruption. A candidate's microphone should only be active when it is his turn to speak, to promote adherence to the rules and orderly proceedings.

So, let's review: (1) No R.F.K. Jr. or anyone else cluttering up the stage. (2) Only moderators who actually work for the network; no ringers allowed. (3) Firm time limits. (4) Cut the mics when the other candidate is talking, to avoid Trump screaming over everything for the entire debate (as he is wont to do).

That all actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. But as I said, neither CNN nor ABC has so far publicly agreed to all of these terms, to say nothing of the Trump campaign. Trump, caught rather flatfooted, immediately agreed to the debates and even challenged Biden to two additional debates (which Team Biden immediately refused). But Trump hasn't publicly agreed to having no audience or having his microphone cut off when Biden is speaking, so we'll have to see what the actual rules turn out to be. My guess is that CNN (being first in line) will likely soon announce that both sides have agreed to the format and will publish the details of what we can all expect to see.

[Update: CNN has now announced the debate will take place without an audience, at their Atlanta studios, and that Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate. The rules for inclusion seem to guarantee that neither J.F.K. Jr. nor any other third-party candidate will qualify. Still no word on the microphone situation, though.]

The shocking thing about this development is not the apparent end of the Commission on Presidential Debates, it is instead the timing of the debates. There's a very good argument to be made that the previous "normal" debate schedule is outdated and unworkable, since the debates didn't usually even begin until after early-voting has started in several states. So some people would have already cast their ballots before anyone got to the see the candidates face each other on a stage. This explains the September date, but the June date is just jaw-droppingly early. In fact, it will be the earliest presidential debate ever held, and by a large margin. As mentioned, it will be so early that neither candidate will officially be their party's nominee at that point (the conventions will be held later in the summer).

This is a gamble by Biden. Agreeing to any debates with Trump is a gamble to begin with (since he is so loath to follow anyone's rules on anything), but holding a debate so early will leave an impression on the voters that will last all summer long. If the impression is a bad one, then it is going to hurt. If it's a good one, it should help. Biden is betting that he'll come off a lot better in the public's view than Trump -- which isn't all that risky a bet, really, going by Trump's previous debate performances.

Biden will be forcing a key issue very early in the campaign season: "This is who Donald Trump is. Remember? Do you really want that for four more years, sitting in the White House?!?" Both sides will be hoping for gaffes and stumbles from the other candidate, since both campaigns have been working overtime to portray their opponent as a confused, doddering old man (and, in Trump's case, a confused, angry, and dangerous old man). By doing so, they've set the bar pretty low for each other, it bears mentioning -- a solid performance by either candidate will (at this point) beat expectations. But any "senior moments" will be relentlessly exploited by the other side all summer long.

Whatever happens, it will happen a month and a half from now. So far, most voters have yet to even tune in to any of the politics of the campaign. With the same two men running as last time, there hasn't been a whole lot of excitement generated yet. But now rather than waiting until the nominating conventions are held, the public will get to see the two major parties' candidates debate incredibly early in the campaign cycle. Because it is now official: the presidential debates are on!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Debates Confirmed”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    So do we get a Friday column too?

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


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