Are You Ready for the Debate From Hell? 5

In HBO’s terrific documentary Ren Faire, a surly 86-year-old Texas Renaissance Festival owner who calls himself King George refuses to surrender control of his empire to a new generation of leadership. As a result, everyone around him is engulfed in anxiety and chaos. This week, we have a televised debate between two King Georges who are likewise determined to maintain power, except they’re vying for control of nukes and domestic policy instead of turkey legs and kettle corn. 

We’ve heard it before: The polls have repeatedly shown this is a rematch most Americans don’t want. Biden and Trump are the two oldest major party candidates ever to get on the ballot. And with their first clash of 2024 airing on Thursday, the bar has never been lower for both debate performances. Democrats simply hope Biden can hold it together without sounding like he’s mentally slipping. Republicans are praying Trump doesn’t act too crazy (and also hope he doesn’t sound like he’s mentally slipping, given recent reports of Trump meandering nonsensically).

We’re being told this debate is the most consequential ever. If one candidate (or both!) goes entirely off the rails, it just might be. Otherwise, we already know these guys — too well. A presidential debate used to be: Which candidate has a more inspiring vision for America’s future and gives viewers the most confidence in their leadership? This debate is: Which candidate can stand and speak for 90 minutes and not make us feel sad and scared? It’s like a choice between a man who’ll do a bad job by accident and a man who’ll do an even worse job on purpose.

Trump is claiming Biden will use performance-enhancing drugs. Biden’s big event speeches tend to sound rather amped up and shouty. So frankly, maybe he will. But also: So what? Sixth graders use Adderall to power through social studies. Are we really going to begrudge an 81-year-old taking a little something-something to get through a presidential debate? And also, let’s not forget there was a report of rampant speed use in Trump’s White House. Every accusation is a projection, etc.

In terms of prep, Biden’s team has said he’s diligently buckling down to prepare for the debate at Camp David. Trump has suggested he’s is hardly preparing at all, which sounds like a self-own — who wants a president who can’t even study for a test? If Trump is playing the expectations-lowering game, he shouldn’t bother. Our expectations are already on the ground for this debate, there’s no need to start digging holes.

Trump’s team has attacked CNN debate moderator Jack Tapper, claiming he’s biased. This is the type of thing a candidate typically does after performing poorly at a debate. Doing it before a single question has been asked sounds like Trump’s familiar style of pre-losing. This is another election 2020 rerun — “everything’s rigged unless I win.”

The debate will also introduce a few format changes, and at least one is very welcome: Muting mikes when it’s not somebody’s turn to talk is something that should have been implemented years ago. “Don’t interrupt” is a grade school behavior standard, yet presidential candidates can’t seem to follow it anymore (as the most recent Democrat and Republican primaries demonstrated). Many assume the new rule will help Biden as Trump interrupts so much. I suspect it’s a gift in disguise for Trump — his muzzling will gives viewers the impression he’s less annoying than he prefers to be. Of course, there’s a chance Trump might literally yell across the stage so Biden’s mike picks up his comment anyway; muting only works for the mannerly.

Biden’s team refusing to allow a debate audience seems cowardly, however. If you’re proud of your record, you shouldn’t have a hard time defending it in front of people who might disagree with you. If you want to handle global emergencies, show us you can manage a few boos.

It’s a symptom of a larger problem: How isolated candidates have become on the campaign trail from ordinary people who might disagree with them on camera. We haven’t had a town hall-style debate with two candidates on the same stage since 2016. Remember back in the day, George W. Bush and Al Gore sitting on those little chairs looking like deeply sincere daytime talk show hosts fielding questions from the commoners?

CNN debate moderators Tapper and Dana Bash will ask professional reporter questions (read: boring) that the candidates will likely be prepared to answer. In town hall debates, candidates would occasionally get wild and terrific questions nobody expected. If only a Gold Star mother could demand Trump say to her face that her son or daughter killed in action was a “sucker” and a “loser” (like he’s reportedly said about military veterans). Or if only somebody whose family’s finances have been devastated by inflation could directly confront Biden over his spending and dismissiveness about the issue. But nope, modern campaigns have mike-muted the poors.

It’s tough to even imagine a debate this year with regular folks getting tough with Trump and Biden without the two getting snappy and irritated right back. How dare they? The insolence! Which brings us back to that one thing the candidates have in common along with their advanced age: Regal entitlement. In 2016, Trump declared “I alone can fix” America’s problems. Earlier this year, Biden defended his decision to run again by declaring, “I’m the only one who has ever beat [Trump].” So here we are again. Preparing to watch this debate through our fingers. Get the kettle corn ready.

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