Biden and Trump return to the debate stage

A new set of rules will shape how Friday’s presidential showdown unfolds

Friday morning Australian time, President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump will face off in the first of two scheduled debates before the November 5 election. For reasons I’ll go into below, the event is unusual in any number of ways and, given the presence of Donald Trump, anything can happen.

First, here’s what you need to know: The debate will take place at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta at 9pm local time Thursday, or 11am Sydney time Friday. 

CNN is offering the debate free to the other news networks. All three of the majors – Fox, MSNBC and CNN – will bracket the event with the requisite hours of groundless predictions beforehand and hot takes after. 

This session will be markedly different from those of recent years in a few ways. 

Traditionally, the debates are overseen by a non-profit group called the Commission on Presidential Debates, but this year, the Biden and Trump campaigns negotiated independently. 

The debate is unprecedentedly early in the campaign. It will run for 90 minutes instead of 2 hours and include commercial breaks for the first time. There will be no live audience. (That’s a throwback to the format used in the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. Speaking of which, thankfully, fringe candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a sad sputtering stepchild of a once proud political dynasty, did not make the cut). The biggest change: producers will mute a candidate’s microphone when the other is speaking. All of this, of course, is due to Trump’s deranged behavior in previous debates. 

The big question: How will hosts, CNN veterans Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, handle Trump?

Moderators reflexively feel that it is the candidates’ job to deliver the hard punches, and as a rule shy away from arguing, particularly with the unhinged practitioners of the far American right. (As the saying goes, You don’t want to get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.)

This has improved a bit in the Trump era – some of Tapper’s tough positions are a case in point, and he’s become a fairly noted figure because of it.

What we need to see in this debate is a willingness by the interlocutors to confront Trump with an overwhelming barrage of facts. Here’s a sample of what I’d like to see:

“Mr Trump, you tell your followers that you got 74 million votes in 2020, more than any sitting president in US history. What you don’t tell your followers is that President Biden received the largest number of votes by any candidate ever – more than 81 million votes. Joe Biden received more than 51 per cent of the vote, which is a larger percentage than Ronald Reagan got against Jimmy Carter. Will you acknowledge this lopsided loss to your supporters tonight, or will you continue to spread misinformation?” 

Unfortunately, in recent years CNN has been beset by corporate and managerial issues that have shaken the organisation’s confidence. Managers were quoted in the New York Times this week making noises about how moderators should not be engaged in real-time fact-checking. This plays into Donald Trump’s hands.

Will the debate matter? The historical record says that it won’t. Yes, Nixon came across as a little sweaty on the new technology of television some 64 years ago, and yes, this or that candidate has gotten off a good line in the years since. Most analysts say a debate only reinforces the views that the electorate already had about a candidate. That said, this year, with so many voters holding firm to their opinions, the election will be won or lost by a few thousand people in six swing states. There’s a lot on the line. As Bette Davis once said, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Bill Wyman is a former assistant managing editor of National Public Radio in Washington. He lives in Sydney. 

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