Will the Biden-Trump Debates Even Matter?

Column: The first real news of the 2024 campaign

Joe Biden (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters), Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
May 17, 2024

It was the political equivalent of a surprise Taylor Swift album: At 8 a.m. on May 15, with no advance warning, President Biden challenged former president Donald Trump to a debate.

Within the hour, Trump accepted. And within hours after that, Biden and Trump had committed to two debates over three months. The first, at CNN headquarters on June 27, will be held before either candidate accepts his party's nomination. ABC plans on hosting the second debate on September 10.

The deal was worked out by lunch. And the details were settled as well. No live audience. No open mics while the other man is speaking. No Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Trump says he isn't bothered by rules that favor Biden. So confident is he in his forensic skills—and in Biden's infirmity—that Trump is ready to debate whenever, wherever. A mistake? We'll see next month.

More interesting than the back-and-forth between the campaigns was the jolt of energy that the news provided to one of the most boring presidential contests on record. After months of political routine, the Beltway has something to obsess over and speculate about. Something unexpected happened. When the history of the 2024 election is written, the fact that the debates (or debate) occurred may be more noteworthy than any effect they had on the race.

Consider the barren landscape that a lonely political junkie has had to endure these past months. Both parties are set to nominate their respective frontrunners—the first presidential repeat since 1956 and the first major-party rematch between presidents since 1892. Both frontrunners faced challengers, it is true. And both frontrunners easily overcame them.

Biden steamrolled over Rep. Dean Phillips (D., Minn.) and self-help guru Marianne Williamson. And the Republican primary yielded few surprises. Doug Burgum impressed, Ron DeSantis imploded, Mike Pence withdrew, Nikki Haley stalled, and Vivek Ramaswamy annoyed. No one came close to beating Trump.

Where was the drama of cycles past? There was no one asking "where's the beef," nor any monkey business. No plane sat on a tarmac waiting for Mario Cuomo, nor did Pat Buchanan declare a war for the soul of our nation. No McCain fighting the evil empire, no Dean scream, no "you are likable enough, Hillary." No Rick Perry "oops." Not even a "please clap."

No fun. The presidential nominees were set before Major League Baseball's Opening Day. Election Day will be held after the Phillies defeat the Yankees in the World Series. That makes for one of the longest general elections in memory.

And one of the most grueling. Biden is cosseted by his staff to limit gaffes. He keeps a light schedule, rarely ventures beyond D.C. or Delaware except to raise money, and restricts his interactions with media to friendly anchors and columnists. Biden wants to swap out his basement for the Situation Room, ensconcing himself within the protective shell of the White House so that, like in 2020, Trump gets all the attention.

Normally, Trump would be happy to oblige. This year is different. First, Trump isn't president, Biden is. And presidents cannot escape the spotlight.

Second, local, state, and federal prosecutors have done their best to keep Trump away from the campaign trail and inside law offices and courthouses. Trump also has been holding fewer events than in past elections—though he is probably conserving energy for a frenetic burst of activity in the final weeks of October.

The upshot is a lengthy general election between a current and former president who are the two oldest and two of the least-liked candidates in history. A general election whose shape has been remarkably consistent: For more than six months, Trump has been narrowly ahead in averages of national polls and more comfortably ahead in averages of state polls.

The biggest surprise has been the popularity of RFK Jr.—an appeal that must explain efforts to diminish his presence and to sideline him from the debates. Prior to May 15, the most exciting story in politics was speculation over Trump's choice for vice president. Everything else was settled.

Not anymore. Both campaigns believe the debates will be turning points. Biden wants to remind voters that the election will be a choice between him and the man they rejected four years ago. Trump wants to showcase Biden's decline and highlight the rising cost of living and crisis on the southern border.

As much as Biden wants the first debate to change the trajectory of the race and spring him ahead of Trump, he is also hedging against possible disaster. Note that the second debate will be held two months before Election Day, giving Biden (or Trump) plenty of time to recover from a false step or bad impression. Biden's offer, timing, and criteria smack more of a losing candidacy than a winning one.

Meanwhile, Trump must reassure voters leery of putting him back in the Oval Office. Reassurance is not his thing. Playing to his base is. The debate moderators will ask Trump pointed questions about January 6 and abortion rights. His responses could send independent voters, who are backing him in the polls, into Biden's arms.

Will it matter? Try to name a general election debate since Nixon faced Kennedy that may have decided a presidential outcome. Perhaps Reagan and Carter in 1980. Most of the time, debate results are indecisive. Partisans retreat to their corners. Incumbents do poorly in the first debate—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump—then slowly recover. Last-minute events have more significance.

I didn't expect debates in 2024. It seemed to me that there was too much risk involved for both Biden and Trump. Nor is there a mandate of heaven for presidential debates. But the two candidates calculate risk differently—that's probably why they are presidents. In their view, the potential upside of watching your opponent melt down is greater than the risk of tripping up. If you do implode, you still will have two months where the other guy can mess up.

Such logic shook up the race this week. It's why we are on track for a debate on June 27. And it's why I will be watching—crouched in a fetal position and covering my eyes.