You may not have noticed with the rush of other news this week, but former President Donald Trump and President Biden suddenly announced that they’d agreed to the terms of the presidential debates this year. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a surprise: despite frequent hemming and hawing from both campaigns every four years, they tend to end up happening anyway.

In 2020, they became exceptionally controversial, as they occurred in the midst of the pandemic with one candidate, Trump, contracting COVID-19, but two of the three scheduled debates happening anyway. At the time, the debates were organized by the (theoretically) bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, with Fox News and NBC each getting a chance to moderate the two debates that actually occurred. Apart from the oddities of the cancelled debate and the pandemic, it was a typical debate schedule: a vice-presidential debate and three presidential debates, all in September and October, with various networks moderating them. That’s been the standard format for more than two decades, going back to 1996, when Dole and Clinton only held two debates.

This year, that tradition has been turned on its head, and it’s not entirely clear why. The Commission on Presidential Debates proposed its usual format and schedule last year, but the two major parties promptly ignored them. Essentially, Democrats and Republicans colluded to kill off the CPD, which now serves no purpose. That’s not entirely a bad thing; the CPD format and schedule has become stale over the years and needed a shake-up.

What’s unclear is whether the new format the campaigns worked out is any better, or why the candidates agreed to it. Rather than having three debates in the fall, they’ve agreed to one in June and one in September. The June debate, to be moderated by CNN and held in Atlanta, will be the earliest general election debate ever by a long shot – the earliest before that was in late September. This is completely unprecedented; neither candidate will even be the formal nominee yet, with the conventions scheduled for July and August. Those events typically kick off the general election campaign, giving both parties the chance to showcase their candidates in front of friendly crowds with prime-time speeches.

It’s clear why President Biden wants an early debate: His campaign needs a shot in the arm, and he knows it. Whether he’s willing to admit it or not, current polling isn’t looking good for him. He’s either tied or trailing Trump in most national polls, and he’s not doing well in state polls, either: He’s consistently behind in two states he surprisingly won last time, Arizona and Georgia. If Trump wins those states, all he needs to do to win is take one of the three midwestern swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin. Biden’s campaign staffers might feign confidence, but demanding an early debate shows that they know they need to make up ground; the claim that it’s for the sake of early voters isn’t believable. If voters need the debates to make up their minds, they can always wait to vote; there’s no reason for the schedule to be changed to accommodate them.

What’s less clear is why Trump agreed to such an early debate, especially one hosted by CNN, without an audience and in Georgia. Trump essentially gave in to all of Biden’s demands on debates when, if the polling is to be believed, he should have been negotiating from a position of strength. It’s not just about the polls, either: Four years ago, Biden benefited politically from the debates far more than Trump. In short, Trump had every reason to duck the debates in the general election, just as he did during the Republican primaries. On the face of it, none of that seems to make much sense.

It’s clear that, for whatever reason, Trump and his campaign believed that he desperately needed debates, and that’s why they were so willing to go along with Biden’s terms.

It’s also clear that we need, if anything, more debates, not fewer, and we need a completely different format, not just a tweaked schedule. Right now, the presidential debates are just recycled talking points tucked into a shouting match. It would be nice to have a real, quality debate, with more candidates present. Unfortunately, preventing that outcome is one of the few things both parties agree on these days.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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