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HomeU.SWhy Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes

Why Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes


Tens of millions of dollars of advertising has not changed President Biden’s polling deficit. Donald J. Trump’s criminal trial has not altered the race’s trajectory. And Mr. Biden’s significant cash and infrastructure advantages have yet to pay political dividends.

So on Wednesday, the one weekday Mr. Trump is not confined to a courtroom, the Biden campaign shook up the race, publicly offering to bring forward the first presidential debate by three months. The move was meant to jolt Americans to attention sooner than later about their consequential choice in 2024. Mr. Biden’s advisers have long believed that the dawning realization of a Trump-Biden rematch will be a balm for the president’s droopy approval ratings.

The Trump team swiftly accepted. And Mr. Trump proceeded to do Mr. Biden the favor of lowering expectations for his performance, writing on social media that his rival was “the WORST debater I have ever faced.” The post was a preview of the insults to come, with Mr. Trump accusing the president of being unable to “put two sentences together” and calling him “crooked” three times.

The early-debate gambit from Mr. Biden amounted to a public acknowledgment that he is trailing in his re-election bid, and a bet that an accelerated debate timeline will force voters to tune back into politics and confront the possibility of Mr. Trump returning to power.

Yet, at the same time, proposing the earliest general-election debate in the history of television is a way to mitigate the risks of placing an 81-year-old president onstage live for 90 minutes. By agreeing to two debates rather than the traditional three, the Biden campaign is limiting his exposure. By scheduling the clashes further out from Election Day, both candidates will have opportunities to recover should they stumble.

Mr. Trump, who turns 78 in June and skipped all of the Republican primary debates, has been eager to meet Mr. Biden onstage, publicly and privately casting him as diminished since 2020. Within hours of Mr. Biden’s announcement on Wednesday, both sides had publicly agreed to a debate on June 27 hosted by CNN in Atlanta and one with ABC News on Sept. 10.

There is also peril for Mr. Trump because Mr. Biden has performed well in key moments when expectations were set low for him — including the 2020 debates and his recent State of the Union addresses.

By accepting Mr. Biden’s deal for two debates, Mr. Trump lost almost all his leverage to demand more, even as his campaign asked for monthly contests and Mr. Trump said he had accepted a Fox News debate in October. The Biden campaign made clear that the president would participate in only two.

“President Biden made his terms clear for two one-on-one debates, and Donald Trump accepted those terms,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the campaign’s chair. “No more games. No more chaos. No more debate about debates.”

The startling speed of the agreement was possible, in part, because senior officials in the two campaigns had been engaged in back-channel talks about debates in advance of the Biden campaign letter, according to four people familiar with the discussions. The two campaigns had a mutual interest in circumventing the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen the events since 1988.

They also both wanted Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump to face off directly, without Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or other independent or third-party candidates. Mr. Kennedy wrote on social media on Wednesday that his dominant competitors were “colluding,” adding, “They are afraid I would win.”

In a sign of the preparation before Wednesday’s announcements, the Biden campaign had in recent days moved to reschedule a major New York fund-raising event planned for the evening of June 27.

If the June and September events go ahead and no additional debates are scheduled, Americans will be given their side-by-side looks at the two major-party presidential candidates before a vast majority of voters have access to their ballots. It will also give Mr. Biden a freer hand to script the final weeks of his last political campaign, focusing on turning out early voters without having to prepare for a high-stakes event on live television.

For both candidates, the earlier dates allow for time to recover from a potentially uneven performance.

Presidential debates remain singular events in American politics. More than 73 million people tuned into the first Biden-Trump debate in 2020, and 84 million watched Mr. Trump’s first debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

One unusual aspect of this year’s general-election debates is that both candidates will be relatively rusty at sparring onstage.

Typically, the challenger has honed his skills in a series of primary debates. But Mr. Trump chose not to join those this year. The last debate either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden attended was their final 2020 one.

Both men are unpopular entering the general election. The latest polls of battleground states by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer showed that 40 percent of registered voters viewed Mr. Biden favorably, compared with 45 percent for Mr. Trump. But while a majority of voters have consistently seen Mr. Trump unfavorably for years, Mr. Biden was better liked four years ago.

Mr. Biden has in recent months adopted a more pugnacious approach to Mr. Trump, delivering a major speech about democracy the day before the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, as well as a Trump-focused State of the Union address. Both sought to elevate the contrast between the two candidates and the stakes of this year’s election.

And while Mr. Biden trails in public and private polling, his campaign team still believes that he will improve his standing once voters accept the two men as their only realistic presidential options and are reminded of Mr. Trump’s record in office — particularly on issues like democracy and abortion rights.

In one reflection of why the Biden campaign thinks Americans need their memories jogged, The Times/Siena/Inquirer poll found that 17 percent of voters in the top six battleground states believed, incorrectly, that Mr. Biden, not Mr. Trump, was responsible for ending the constitutional right to abortion.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has spent months mocking Mr. Biden’s mental acuity and questioning his stamina to be onstage for 90 minutes.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies have come to regret setting the bar so low for Mr. Biden in the past, especially before his State of the Union address. The president delivered that speech with more verve than usual only hours after a Trump super PAC suggested in a television ad that Mr. Biden was so old, he might not live to survive another term.

Still, prominent supporters of Mr. Trump hardly downplayed his chances in the debates. Sean Hannity of Fox News predicted that Mr. Trump would “wipe the floor” with Mr. Biden. The Trump campaign reposted the clip on social media.

Mr. Biden presented his debate challenge on Wednesday with the kind of machismo that voters are more accustomed to hearing from Mr. Trump. “Well, make my day, pal,” Mr. Biden said in a video posted online. He went on to needle Mr. Trump for being confined to a courtroom four days a week: “I hear you’re free on Wednesday.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign also began selling T-shirts that read: “Free on Wednesdays.” It was a departure from the typical Biden posture of not commenting on Mr. Trump’s legal troubles.

Later, when Mr. Biden agreed to the Sept. 10 debate, he wrote on social media: “I’ll bring my plane, too. I plan on keeping it for another four years.”

The decision to abandon the debate commission was not a big surprise. Mr. Trump has signaled his willingness to meet with or without the commission. And Mr. Biden’s team was frustrated, if not furious, that Mr. Trump debated Mr. Biden in 2020 despite appearing ill, soon thereafter testing positive for the coronavirus, and that Mr. Trump’s family had removed their masks while in the audience.

Some Biden advisers have been targeting the commission for the dustbin for even longer. A bipartisan report in 2015 from the Annenberg Public Policy Center — which counted among its authors Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser, and Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former White House chief of staff — recommended a thorough overhaul.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.



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