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Will the Debate Be ‘Rah-Rah’ or ‘Ruh-Roh?’


Good evening. It’s debate week!

The showdown in Atlanta means the general election season is upon us, even if excitement isn’t exactly popping off the charts (more on that below). And that, dear reader, means On Politics will now start showing up in your inbox every weekday evening, as my colleagues and I try to make sense of this weird and weighty election. — Jess Bidgood

I asked how you all were feeling about the debate. I read all of your responses.

Laurie Lowe is a Democrat from Florida and a reader of this newsletter (hi, Laurie!). She has a plan for Thursday’s presidential debate between President Biden and former President Donald Trump — and a plan B if things go south.

“My Democratic friends and I are all going to watch but are terrified that Biden will have one of his ‘moments.’ To lighten our mood we have Biden and Trump bingo cards,” Lowe wrote to me. “Bingo might turn into a drinking game instead if things go badly.”

Last week, I asked you all how you were feeling about the first 2024 general election debate. I read your responses, more than 600 of them. And, as I wrote earlier today, I learned that many of you have come down with a case of deep debate distress — a feeling I described as less “rah-rah” than “ruh-roh.”

Some of you expressed nothing but excitement, and you’re confident you’ll see a strong showing by the president. But many of you, like Lowe and her friends, want Biden to do well but worry he will slip up. Some described real despair about the prospect of seeing Trump on a debate stage once more. Many of you are sick of both men entirely, and are wrestling with whether or not to tune out altogether.

“I just look at it, and I’m like, is this it?” said Kyle Smith, a Democrat from Northville, Mich., when I called him yesterday afternoon. “This?”

“It’s almost like watching a car crash,” Nancy Davis, an independent from Pennsylvania, wrote. “You just can’t look away.”

Some years, presidential debates come with wild anticipation — a moment for people on either side of the political divide to rally ahead of a battle for the future of the country. That makes the depth of the dread this year, particularly among Biden supporters, unusual — although it is fitting for an evening imbued with as much unpredictability as this one is.

But those low expectations could be a gift, some Democratic strategists say.

“Every time the president is out, he outperforms expectations, and every time the president is out, he reassures Democrats,” Celinda Lake, a pollster who is helping with Biden’s re-election campaign but speaking only for herself, told me. “But we have the ability to worry again and again.”

Trump does not exactly have a gleaming record when it comes to presidential debates. In 2016, he loomed over Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, in a confrontation that many viewers interpreted as deeply sexist. The first time he debated Biden in 2020, his own constant interruptions while Biden was speaking were widely seen as damaging . He went on to lose that election.

But Biden’s history of successful debates has not stopped his supporters from worrying, especially when Republicans are doing everything they can — including deceptively editing videos — to stoke doubts about his fitness because of his age.

“I am dreading it because it reminds me of the Kennedy-Nixon debate,” said Alma Ramos-McDermott, a Florida Democrat, who acknowledged that Trump and Biden are far closer in age than John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were when they debated in 1960.

Still, she fretted that “Biden will appear pale and quiet next to Trump’s boisterous attitude.”

Democratic strategists like Lake say that Biden was smart to push for an early debate, both so he can reassure voters like Ramos-McDermott that he’s still up to snuff — and so Trump himself can remind voters who might have forgotten just how unpredictable and caustic he can be.

“God willing,” Lake said, wryly, “Trump will be at his best.”

On Saturday, at a Trump rally in Philadelphia, my colleague Simon Levien spoke to several supporters who were sure their candidate was going to come out on top — although one did offer some advice.

“Trump just needs to not get too aroused and keep calm,” said Brooke Christie, a 44-year-old cancer researcher.

Trump himself, perhaps worried he has set the bar for his opponent too low by constantly mocking his cognitive abilities, has moved to raise expectations for Biden. At the Philadelphia rally, he made fun of Biden for preparing for the debate — but, in doing so, acknowledged his opponent is actually studying.

“It’s like death,” Mr. Trump said. “This could be the most boring — or it could be the most exciting. Who knows?”

Exciting? Many of the readers who wrote in to tell me they were excited honed in on one thing in particular: the fact that the moderators will turn off the microphone for the candidate who isn’t supposed to be speaking.

“Silencing the mikes is going to be interesting,” said Kurt Vogel, a former Republican from Buckhead, Ga., who is now an independent voter.

And Ava Reynolds, a Michigan Democrat, wrote that she had found one thing to be excited about: It’s one step closer to the election being over.

Three years ago, Michael Flynn, a retired general and erstwhile Trump aide who has become an idol for the right wing, took over a small nonprofit. Before long, the group was paying him and his family members more than half a million dollars annually. My colleagues David Fahrenthold, who investigates nonprofit organizations, and Alexandra Berzon, who investigates right-wing movements, recently wrote about the lucrative side of Flynn’s celebrity. I asked Alexandra to tell us more about the little-known group paying Flynn — one that has long been a stand-in for the au courant of the right wing.

Seventy-five years ago, a group of businessmen worried that communism was going to take over this country started a small charity called America’s Future. They warned that American schools were producing only “side-burned, ducktailed, unwashed, leather-jacketed slobs” that Communists could easily defeat.

Since then, the group has mutated time and again as it attached itself to popular right-wing causes of the day.

As Phyllis Schlafly, a leading right-wing anti-feminist activist, became more of an influence on the organization starting in the 1970s, its material called for the review of school curriculums to make sure children were being taught about traditional roles of the sexes. By the 1990s, a single employee working under Schlafly pushed out conservative essays to radio stations — along with limericks. And then, for a while, it went pretty dormant.

The organization then was something of a blank slate, but it had a pedigree and assets, when Ed Martin, a former state Republican Party chairman who had become associated with Schlafly, took it over. Martin, who did not respond to our attempts to contact him, then became a major promoter and backer of Flynn.

Soon, Martin turned the organization over to Flynn. Leading influencers helping to spread QAnon and related causes joined the board. And it became aligned with the next phase in far-right conspiratorial ideology: the false notion that there’s a shadowy cabal of high-level officials involved in exploiting and trafficking children.

The group holds training sessions all over the country, and I went to one recently in rural Ohio — although I was asked to leave as soon as I introduced myself to Flynn and told him I was a reporter.


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