Opinion: All Signs Point to a Trump Debate Meltdown

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The news that President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have agreed to two debates—one in just a few weeks’ time, in late June, and another in September—has naturally got the punditverse buzzing.

Some commentators have focused on Biden’s sharp early morning announcement that he would welcome a debate with Trump. It was just the Egg McBiden the president’s fans—like the folks on Morning Joe—needed to start their day, served as it was with a side order of feistiness. Between the “Make my day, pal” opening and the “Let’s pick a date, Donald, I hear you’re free on Wednesdays” (a reference to his current court schedule) it got sharply to the point, did so with a humorous edge, and obligated Trump to respond.

Trump replied in character with his own statement, using his day off from his criminal election interference trial to offer an irony-deaf reference to Biden being “crooked” and to criticize the president’s debating skills. And of course there were some strangely capitalized words for emphasis.

There were, of course, commentators who offered instant speculation about Biden’s motives—like Chris Cillizza, who concluded Biden was doing this because “he knows he’s behind” and because “he knows age/competence issues aren’t going away.”

Of course, Biden actually isn’t behind Trump in the polls, with most showing the race essentially tied—and several including the most recent NYT Ipsos poll showing Biden up by 3. Further, the idea that “age” is an issue for two guys who are essentially the same age, is one that does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. But never mind all that.

No, after talking to a number of Biden administration officials, it is clear that the primary reason Joe Biden chose to debate Donald Trump is… because he can win.

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The contest is so lopsided that even Trump’s pals at the WWE could not sell a ticket to it. (I know, I know. We’ve got to manage expectations. But, do we? Really? Each time Trump debated Biden in 2020 he lost.) And ever since then, as Biden pointed out in his debate announcement, Trump has avoided debating opponents.

So, he’s bad at it and out of practice. Not a good combination.

The Biden team calculus has to be based in part on the fact that it’s Trump who is actually losing his marbles. How else do you explain his recent praise for Hannibal Lecter and his noticeably slurred words during speeches?

Furthermore, in the view of those close to Biden, Trump’s got a serious problem on the issues. He’s on the wrong side of the American public on many of the policy questions most important to them. For example, Trump keeps proclaiming he is the one responsible for the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Almost two-thirds of all women and over six out of ten men support legal abortion according to a recent Pew report. That translates into 63 percent of all Americans. That’s not a winning issue for Trump and the GOP, and recent special election results even in red states like Kansas and Ohio have shown that.

Trump does badly on other signature issues. He loves Vladimir Putin, for example. In a Pew poll last year 91 percent of Americans indicated they have an unfavorable view of Russia, with 62 percent having views that are very unfavorable. Trump’s one big legislative accomplishment was a tax cut that helped balloon the federal deficit and that tax cuts for those in the top 5 percent of earners were triple those received by the bottom 60 percent of us. Extending the cuts, as Trump has promised he would do, would add, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office,almost $5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

Take Trump’s stance on another signature issue, immigration. Even though many Americans say they share his views, the reality is that when polled on his specific policies, according to a recent Washington Post study, they actually oppose them.

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But set aside for a moment the fact that Trump is a lousy debater who is clearly addled and losing his ability to speak in public. And the fact that his policy positions are broadly unpopular.

And that historians consider him the worst president ever. And that Biden has a great record and has a demonstrated mastery over its details. There are other compelling issues for Biden’s team to be enthusiastic about the prospect of debating Trump.

In all likelihood, the first debate will follow by just a few weeks the conclusion of Trump’s New York election interference trial. There’s a pretty good chance Trump could emerge from the trial a convicted felon. That’s probably not a debate plus.

Even if Trump escapes a conviction, the trial has shown him in a very unflattering light and reminded the world of the sleaziest aspects of his past.

What’s more, by the time the debate takes place it is very likely the Supreme Court will have offered what will be a net unfavorable ruling on Trump’s immunity claims, thus teeing up his next dates before the bar—in Washington, D.C., Florida and Georgia. And if the court rules on Trump’s behalf—against all precedent and the very spirit on which the country was founded—it will produce an outcry about corruption on the Supreme Court that will not redound in Trump’s favor.

Further, reflecting on the New York Trial in its aftermath can’t help Trump—from its icktastic revelations about his attempts to seduce a porn star by comparing her to his daughter, to his daily sideshow at the courthouse, complete with a sycophantic chorus of back-up singers dressed exactly like him.

Indeed, the New York trial has been a revealing episode that could not be a worse prelude for a debate. It has shown once again that although Trump has virtually no deeply held political beliefs, the core of his philosophy of life is that everything is corrupt—and that money and lies are what make the world go around.

This, in turn, reveals him to be a kind of reverse neutron bomb: designed to destroy our institutions while leaving those people within it who are loyal to him still standing, or kneeling before him.

It is that Trump the world has seen in the New York trial. It is that Trump that they saw on Jan. 6. It is that Trump revealed in each of the 91 indictments against him. It is that Trump that is the clear and present danger America faces.

Biden is eager for the chance to stand toe-to-toe with his predecessor for these exact reasons. Trump’s defective character is so clear, and the danger he presents is so great, that the current president will have a hard time looking worse in comparison.

The contrasts between the two men and their beliefs could not be starker.

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