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Why Trump has gone from shunning debates to gunning for them

Trump is certain he can thrash Biden in a debate and use that to his advantage. He shouldn’t be.

Former President Donald Trump is gunning to debate President Joe Biden — as soon as possible. “I’d like to debate him now. … We should debate for the good of the country,” Trump said on “The Dan Bongino Show” on Monday.

Of course, the real reason Trump is so eager likely has nothing to do with the public good and everything to do with his estimation that he’ll be able to thrash Biden on the debate stage ahead of Election Day. But that playbook isn’t as clear-cut as Trump may think it is.

Trump seems to be in for as many debates as possible as long as he believes they will confer a political advantage to him.

The notion that Trump wants to debate Biden based on civic-mindedness is laughable. The aspiring strongman has actively sought to undermine the Republican debates in the run-up to the Republican presidential primaries: He not only shunned them, but held special events at the same time as them, competing with debate viewership and driving home the narrative that he was preparing for his coronation as the GOP nominee. Perhaps he wagered that he had more to lose than to gain from debating a large roster of fresh candidates and didn’t care to help Republican voters size him up against rising talent.

But all of a sudden Trump has become attentive to the health of democracy again. He told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in December that he’d want to do “10 debates” with Biden. In 2020, there were just three debates in the run-up to the general election (one of which was canceled after Trump contracted Covid). His desire for more of them — and apparently to do them as soon as possible, even before the primaries have ended — illustrates how he views debates through a gamified lens; Trump seems to be in for as many debates as possible as long as he believes they will confer a political advantage to him.

Trump’s apparent estimation that he has more to gain from the debates than Biden isn’t necessarily an unreasonable one. While Trump and Biden are both older candidates who are visibly aging, Trump is generally the livelier of the two. Moreover, Biden’s recent gaffes (such as confusing live and dead French presidents) still seem to gain attention in a different way than Trump’s gaffes (such as confusing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi). That’s partially because more voters are concerned about Biden’s mental fitness than Trump’s, and probably because Biden’s pitch to voters is predicated on technocratic competence, whereas Trump’s value proposition is entertainment and crude authoritarianism.

But Trump may be overestimating what he can reap from a Biden debate. First, assuming Biden and Trump secure their respective nominations, it’s likely that Biden will benefit from lower expectations if he performs competently. (One of the many irritating aspects of horse race politics is that candidates are judged against narratives as much as they are judged against each other.) Second, Biden already has a relatively recent record of rising to the occasion and outdoing Trump. In 2020, instant polls showed that viewers believed Biden outperformed Trump during their two debates; Biden was able to confidently get his message across.

There’s an additional reason to be skeptical that Trump can extract any major advantage from the debates this year: Everybody already knows both candidates extremely well. Both politicians will have had one recent term as president under their belt. Both politicians are fixtures in the news. Many political scientists are already skeptical that debates change voters’ attitudes and behavior, and the percentage of people who might tune in to these debates and learn something fundamentally new about the candidates or their beliefs is going to be vanishingly small. 

If Trump and Biden debate this fall, that’ll be important for upholding democratic norms of public engagement and valuable for the historical record — particularly if Trump leans in to his authoritarian tendencies. But if Trump believes that the debates would be a clear win for him, he’s misguided.