With Any Luck, American Voters Will Win in Thursday’s Debate

Photograph Source: Lorie Shaull – CC BY-SA 2.0

Will Thursday’s first – and possibly only – 2024 presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump descend into an angry slugfest. Or will the two candidates, under pressure from the moderators, and constrained by the debate format itself, actually focus on something resembling the “issues”?

With election day just four months away, the challenge for Biden and Trump, who are separated by the slimmest of margins in the polling – far less than the presumptive candidates were in both 2016 and 2020 – is not how to fire up their respective bases – but how to appear reasonably sane and relevant to the broad middle. It’s a challenge that neither man seems to relish, but one each may have to meet if he expects to have any real hope of prevailing in November.

A poll released last week suggested what many people already know. The U.S. political system is in shambles, mired down in partisan vitriol and endless legislative gridlock. Some things do get done “across the aisle,” but far too few, compared to the yawning need. And as the quixotic candidacies of sundry third parties – most notably this cycle, that of RFK, Jr. – continue to show, voters want peace in the world and real efforts to end persistent income inequality. And above all, real improvements in the quality of life. None of this is happening, one reason so much of the populace – especially youth – is miserable, and insisting – by a two-thirds majority – that the country is on the “wrong track.”

Mainstream voters, perhaps unaware of how much political entrepreneurs on both sides, funded by their respective millionaires and multi-millionaires drive – actually, hijack – our policy debates, say they want greater “civility” in the nation’s political discourse, and a greater willingness by both parties to compromise in the interests of something called the “common good.” That likely means, for example, reaching a bipartisan agreement on immigration, stalled in the Congress for more than a decade. It might also mean ending the fierce polemics over abortion and gun control, two other hot-button issues that fire up the ideologues on the left and right, leaving most people bewildered. And on foreign policy, it almost certainly means setting real limits on America’s blind commitment to wars in the Ukraine and Gaza that are leaving civilians dead and battered while offering no real prospects for a lasting peace.

The good news? There’s actually a reasonably good chance that Biden and Trump will face pressure to make significant concessions on Thursday night. Biden, fighting for his survival, will be challenged on the economy, especially inflation. His sin isn’t that he hasn’t fixed the problem – it’s that he denies there is one, and even worse, tells voters who are suffering and angry that they’re simply “wrong,” gaslighting their concerns and invalidating their feelings. Three presidents – Carter in 1980, Bush in 1992 and Trump himself in 2020 – went down to defeat for failing to show basic empathy for the plight of the electorate. Of course, it’s not easy for the Leader of the Free World – endowed with imperial arrogance as a birthright, to admit he’s wrong about something, and then try to redeem himself by changing course. Former Obama strategist David Axelrod – who knows a thing or two about presidential course corrections – made an astute observation well over a month ago when he suggested that Old Joe may well lose in November not because of his profound missteps or policy failures – though indeed, there have been quite a few – but because he suffers from a fundamental sin – pride. Of the seven deadly ones – pride heads the list, allowing us to look past all of our flaws. Biden, who was never seriously considered presidential timber in the past – indeed, as recently as 2020, when he failed miserably until rescued by party pooh-bahs – now can’t seem to get enough of himself, and neither can his sycophantic supporters who issue manifestly absurd paeans to his leadership – the “greatest president of modern times” — knowing full well the man’s practically a cipher – and always has been.

Of course, Biden’s not alone. Speaking of pride – or rather insufferable bombast, bordering on sociopathy – his opponent, “The Donald,” as his supporters have chosen to ennoble him – now faces a profound challenge, too. Trump continues to view the current race as a kind of Bonapartist “restoration.” Those poor pathetic liberals have made a mess of things, turned on their Father, and now want Daddy back, he thinks. But the truth is, for all of MAGA’s grassroots militance, America’s Il Duce wannabe is no more popular than Biden is, and is likely in for a rude awakening during the debate. This will likely be the first time millions of voters hear about Project 2025, the GOP’s rather draconian blueprint for remaking America through mass deportations, the elimination of the Department of Education, and the over-recruitment of Trump loyalists to serve as party bureaucrats, loyally implementing Trump’s orders without questions. Trump has also suggested he might go after and prosecute or persecute those who have opposed him since he lost in 2020 – not just high-level Democrats, but lawyers and media professionals and indeed, perhaps anyone who achieved any degree of notoriety on social media for their anti-Trump postings. If this isn’t a recipe for fascism, then nothing is.

The debate is likely to shine a negative spotlight on some of Trump’s most toxic views and force him to double-down, deflect, or waffle or possibly repudiate them – or risk losing modersates, many of whom are actually leaning his way on the issues. Does Trump have the humility to say he might not support everything in the Project 2025 blueprint, at least not in its extreme form? Sure, we need a tougher approach to illegal immigration, most everyone agrees on that. But is he really planning to round up all the illegals and march them back across the border as Eisnehower once proposed during the offensively named “Operation Wertback”? Right now showcasing these measures helps fire up the GOP base but in fact, much of Project 2025 will either be halted legally – or tied up in court for years.

I may be the only one pretending to write intelligently about politics that is somewhat optimistic about Thursday’s debate. For one thing, the race is so close. Biden led Trump by 7-10 points in the polls at this stage in 2020; indeed, Trump never enjoyed a lead for the length of 2020, thanks largely to COVID. So a misstep – a Biden brain freeze, or an intemperate outburst from Trump – could prove especially costly as the race otherwise continues neck-and-neck to its conclusion. As a rule, no presidential candidate wins by mobilizing his base voters alone. At roughly this time in every presidential election cycle, candidates in each party tend to begin pivoting toward the center. They add nuance to their stated positions, scale back their rhetoric and modulate their tone. It’s a balancing act, but the balance typically shifts away from the base alone. That’s even truer in 2024 than in previous cycles.

Trump has already pivoted more than many commentators realize – on abortion, for example, by rejecting a national ban favored by sao many in his party. And his latest, little noticed proposal to allow foreign-born graduates of college here in the US on temporary visas to convert to permanent residency – and eventual citizenship – is another big pivot. Biden has also just pivoted on immigration also, by coupling his own plan for a partial legalization plan with presumably tougher border control policies that many on the left find odious. These are positive steps and could well augur a shift after the election to more bipartisan cooperation on immigration, which is long overdue.

Expect the debate to include some surprises – ones that may be favorable to Trump, I suspect. On Trump’s side, look for him to expand upon his proposal to eliminate the income tax in favor of a stringent America First tariff policy. It’s outside-the-box and already has GOP libertarians and MAGA populists stirring. Trump’s also proposing to eliminate taxes on tips for servers, another populist measure intended to appeal to low-income workers, including single women in the workforce. Trump may also unveil a new plan to make major new investments in America’s inner cities and new commitments to fostering minority small businesses, measures targeted at African-Americans especially. Trump’s promised “urban renewal” before – just as Nixon did, with much fanfare, in the 1970s – and like his failures on an infrastructure bill, Trump did very little, in fact. But that won’t keep him from making similar promises again – and like his immigration green card plan – it will likely work as a performative commitment that his supporters and spin doctors will tout in the debate’s aftermath.

On foreign and defense policy, Trump still holds a distinct edge. The public is disturbed by endless bloodshed in what appear to be interminable wars in which Biden is deeply implicated. The Gaza war especially. No one’s calling Trump “Genocide Don.” When Trump insists that America not only enjoyed prosperity but peace under his first administration, it’s hard to challenge him. Still, voters will want to know what Trump plans to actually do to achieve peace in the Middle East or with Russia and Iran. His boasts of ending these wars within 24 hours are great sound bites on the campaign trail, but now that we’re bogged down, with the threat of dangerous escalations on the horizon, he needs to get specific. Biden’s commitment to negotiations and diplomacy over confrontation – as empty as his gestures seem, given Israeli intransigence – tends to sit better with the American electorate. Trump, with his long unabashed commitment to Israel, isn’t going to win over the middle if he suggests that America needs to back Israel to the hilt in the name of stopping “terrorism.” It’s easy to make such red meat claims to your base. The broader electorate? Not so much

Thursday’s debate, by forcing the two candidates to address deep-seated voter unease with both of them, might actually prove revelatory. Optics, of course, will play a role in shaping public perceptions. But I don’t think the bar is as low for Biden as some on both sides suspect. Biden needs to do more than show up for 90 minutes and not stumble. He needs to bring something to the table on inflation – more than anything, a new self-critical attitude – that has eluded him to date. And Trump needs to demonstrate a capacity for restraint of tongue and basic respect for his political opponents. This debate isn’t a MAGA campaign rally or a State of the Union speech. Thankfully, because the race is so close, and the debate rules so much tighter than before, both men will need to be on their best behavior – and must be prepared for real scrutiny. In a debate with fewer fireworks and verbal invective, neither man will likely walk away with a discernible “win.” It will be left to the spin doctors to argue over who made a stronger impression and what exchange comprised the most saleable “viral moment.” But the rest of us – disgusted to our core with both men, with the two parties, and with the general state of American politics – could possibly emerge – for once – as the victors.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence811147@gmail.com.