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How the Presidential Debate Can Serve the Public

It needs to be about more than the drama.

June 25, 2024
Trump and Biden and 2020 debate
Jim Bourg/Contributor

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump will debate on CNN at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday. As an alumnus of “debate camp” and a presidential historian, I’m eager to watch.

Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy held the first televised presidential debate in 1960. Those who watched on TV favored bronzed Kennedy over sweaty Nixon; those who listened on radio thought Nixon won. (Some scholars have debunked that. I say it’s too good to check.) The next debates were in 1976, and they have occurred every four years since then. 

We remember them for gaffes and drama. But when you watch them on C-SPAN, what is most interesting is the earnest discussion of issues and strategies. 

Gerald Ford probably lost the election in 1976 when he bafflingly declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” That reinforced Lyndon Johnson’s unfair jibe that there was nothing wrong with Ford “except he played football too long without his helmet.” In 1980, Ronald Reagan defused his greatest weakness, chuckling at Jimmy Carter’s charges of extremism (“there you go again”). Reagan made himself an acceptable alternative and won by a landslide.

This time, both candidates face perils.

For Biden, paradoxically, it is that he is the president. Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump all lost their first debate. Incumbents are rusty, cocooned. A military band plays “Hail to the Chief” when they walk into a room. Rarely are they challenged to their face. Biden has held few press conferences and given few interviews. He will have to fight hard against seeming peeved at criticism of his record.

Four years ago, Donald Trump was frantic, bombastic, and, it turned out, feverish from Covid-19. It is a big part of why he lost. These days, at his rallies he rails against his foes and promises retribution. But CNN’s format — with strict time limits and microphone cutoffs — perversely could help Trump, just as he was helped by being thrown off Twitter.

I was very involved in debate prep for Bill Clinton in 1996 when I was his chief speechwriter. Clinton knew well the incumbent jinx and worked hard to beat it. For the first debate, he prepped for most of a week at the leafy Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Sen. George Mitchell played Bob Dole. He clobbered Clinton, who, like the other incumbents, was not used to being denounced to his face. At one point, Clinton slammed down his papers. “He’s cheating! He has notes!” Each day we would confide to lurking reporters that Mitchell had bested the president, and they all thought we were just spinning to lower expectations. With Clinton, we wrote and researched and practiced answers. Clinton grew more assured each day. The prep paid off: he was the only incumbent to prevail in the first debate, according to polls.

So as a political aficionado, I will watch for signs of a confident candidate.

But I will also want to see if the debate serves the public. CNN anchors will ask all the questions, and I hope that they rise to the moment.

The overarching issue — one that rarely has come up before — is the health of American democracy. “We are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy,” Biden declared at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. No doubt he will pound Trump for his attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power four years ago.

Trump, in turn, has made his claim that millions of noncitizens will vote a central campaign argument. (That’s nonsense, by the way.) Just as we saw in 2020, the Big Lie is being pre-deployed.

I hope the candidates will talk concretely about American democracy and how to fix it. For Biden, being pro-democracy cannot merely be a euphemism for supporting him. He should talk about his future agenda, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. I hope the anchors will not hurry the candidates along if they want to discuss these things — voting rights and January 6 and the like — in their eagerness to get to other issues such as inflation or immigration.

We will likely hear about the Supreme Court. Trump has been eager to describe the kinds of justices he wants to appoint (judges like Clarence Thomas, he said). Biden, on the other hand, has long hesitated to discuss the Court itself. At his State of the Union, he did tell the justices that “with all due respect, justices, women are not without . . . electoral or political power.” Two weeks ago, at last, he said that the next president might appoint two justices, and Trump would “appoint two more flying flags upside down.”

We can expect to hear about crime as well. Trump used to brag about signing the First Step Act, a bipartisan sentencing reform law. More recently, he has turned to angry rhetoric about supposedly soaring crime. Yes, violence spiked during the pandemic, but it has dropped sharply since then. And there is no evidence at all that criminal justice reform led to more crime.

The job for the Brennan Center in this moment: fight fear with facts. Not a bad goal for all of us as viewers.