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Questions grow over possibility of Biden-Trump debates

Questions are growing over whether President Biden and former President Trump will participate in any presidential debates this cycle.

Trump has stepped up his calls for Biden to face him in a debate over the past week, saying in a Truth Social post he would debate him “anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”

Biden responded late last week that he was open to debating Trump but said doing so depends on the former president’s “behavior.”

With Biden not committing to participating yet and Trump having previously slammed the commission overseeing debates as biased against him, this year’s election could be the first in 50 years without a debate between the general election candidates.

“I think if the Republicans had nominated anybody but Donald Trump, you might be having a different discussion,” Democratic strategist Jim Demers said.

Debates have been a hallmark of presidential elections for decades, regularly marking a climax of the race and yielding memorable moments that get talked out beyond Election Day. But the 2020 debates between Trump and Biden were so contentious that it appeared debates between general election candidates may cease. 

The first debate between the two candidates in late September 2020 was a chaotic event. Trump regularly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace while they were speaking, and the debate was at times incoherent. 

Another debate held in October, in which the candidates’ microphones were muted when the other was speaking, was generally viewed as better. But in the aftermath, Trump and the Republican National Committee (RNC) accused the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has conducted every debate since 1988, of being biased against Trump. 

The commission originally formed under joint sponsorship from both parties and identifies as nonpartisan. The RNC voted in 2022 to direct GOP nominees not to participate in debates the commission organizes, with then-RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel saying the party would find “newer, better debate platforms.” 

But Trump said he would debate under any circumstances in a Truth Social post last week. 

“The Debates can be run by the Corrupt [Democratic National Committee], or their Subsidiary, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). I look forward to receiving a response,” he said. 

But Biden has remained noncommittal, at least for now, and his campaign said Trump’s call for debates was just him being “thirsty for attention.” Trump re-upped his call Tuesday, saying a debate must “immediately” be held for the “good of our now failing Nation.” 

Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates and the director of debate at the University of Michigan, said he believes “it’s more likely than not” that at least one or two debates will be held, but eight months before Election Day may be early for Biden to commit to it. 

“I think he wants to use … the kind of leverage he has to get the best deal possible, so I don’t know that he has an incentive to commit right now, but eventually I would think he is likely [to participate],” Kall said. 

Kall said Biden’s reference to Trump’s behavior may indicate concern about a debate playing out similarly to 2020, especially if Trump continues to try to make false claims about the 2020 election being stolen and other statements that need to be fact-checked. 

“I think he’s worried about that misinformation going out to a large audience that would tune into the debates,” he said. 

Frank Fahrenkopf, a co-chair of the commission and former RNC chair, noted that the commission does not work with the parties, but rather the candidates, so Trump’s decision on whether to participate matters more than the RNC motion. 

The commission communicates with the candidates through a person the campaigns choose to act as the go-between for questions they may have, he said, adding it has not yet had direct contact with anyone from the Trump or Biden campaigns. 

He said discussions about the debates usually would not begin with the candidates until the conventions in the summer, but it may start earlier with Biden and Trump both having mathematically clinched their parties’ nominations on Tuesday

Fahrenkopf noted the point people the campaigns choose are for getting answers to questions about the debate, not for negotiating the logistics. 

“The commission names the date, names the location, university campuses which we choose, names the format and names the moderators. There’s no debate between the commission and the candidates,” he said. 

The commission has already set three debates for Biden and Trump from September to October, along with a vice presidential debate. Fahrenkopf said the commission’s members will meet in the upcoming weeks to determine what the format will be. 

He said the debates are still too far away for him to determine how he feels about the chances of them actually happening, but he was encouraged by comments both candidates have made. 

“That was good news to us, and we just have to see where it goes,” Fahrenkopf said. 

Republican strategist Nicole Schlinger said Trump’s recent remarks seem to indicate he sees himself as more “robust” than Biden and wants to draw a contrast between their stamina and policies. But she said a risk exists any time a candidate participates in debates, though it may not make sense if his lead in polling remains well into the fall. 

“The Trump team is coming off a primary campaign where he didn’t need to debate. With his strong polling right now, they have to wonder if it’s worth doing,” she said. 

Democratic strategist Douglas Wilson said Trump and Republicans view Biden as “old and feeble,” so they expect that winning a debate against him would be easy. He said Trump’s strategy is to be aggressive with Biden in challenging him at a debate so the incumbent makes a gaffe, as he has been seen to make from time to time. 

But Wilson argued Biden’s performances in his past State of the Union addresses — during which some congressional Republicans heckled him and he was able to respond in the moment — should be a sign he should not be underestimated. 

“He did pretty damn well, and I think it will be a great mistake on the Trump team to underestimate how Biden will perform in those debates,” Wilson said. 

Moné Holder, the senior director of advocacy and programs for the progressive organization Florida Rising, said a risk exists for Biden to make a misstep, but he should be able to show he can speak to various issues on the national stage. Even if Trump acts as he did previously, that is important for the country to see as well, she said. 

“It definitely is something that we need to see, folks need to see and take account into when we’re deciding who we’re going to cast the ballot for in November,” Holder said. 

But Demers, the Democratic strategist, said he does not believe debates would be helpful or in the public’s interest. He argued that Trump’s behavior would most likely turn the event into a “circus.”

“I just don’t think the voters are gonna get anything out of it, and I think it’s not worth giving Donald Trump any credibility considering what he’s like,” he said.

Source: The Hill

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