President Biden’s Debate Gambit: Big Risk, Big Reward

Last August, I wrote a piece in this publication arguing that President Joe Biden should not debate former President Donald Trump. In the piece, I wrote, “Would the public benefit from a substantive debate on the issues? Of course. But that is not what you get with Trump. A debate with Trump would instantly devolve into a theater of the absurd in which everyone but Trump loses.”

The piece ran right after Trump sat out the first Republican primary debate, and I said Donald ditched Republicans and Joe should ditch Donald.

I still believe that. But the Biden campaign has come to a different conclusion.

This combination of pictures shows Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22, 2020.


After Trump claimed for months that he would debate Biden “anytime, anywhere, anyplace,” Biden called Trump’s bluff, and after a flurry of press releases and social media posts over a two-hour period on Wednesday, both campaigns appear to have agreed to plan to ditch the stale, nearly 40-year-old tradition of debates through the Presidential Debate Commission and have two one-on-one debates on terms very friendly to the Biden campaign. Including the unprecedented decision to have a debate in June, nearly five months before Election Day.

If the Biden campaign concluded that they couldn’t buck tradition and a debate was necessary, as some outlets have reported, the surprise announcement on Wednesday was a highly strategic move by them. Instead of months of debates about debates, Biden got Trump to agree to all his terms on the spot.

Hardly the “Art of the Deal” stuff from Trump. But the reality is this is a big gamble for Biden, and it comes with both huge risks and huge rewards. And Biden and Democrats shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Clearly, after a series of bad polls and the inability to keep the momentum the president gained coming out of his State of the Union Address going, Biden and his team decided they needed to shake up the race—and now. Before the conventions. Before Trump names a vice presidential nominee. And before even most voters are tuned into the race.

In poker terms, they are going all-in in just the first few deals of the game. And they’ll either be sitting with all the chips or none.

The Biden campaign theory of the case is that the more voters see of Trump, the less they will like him. They want Trump in everyone’s living room on a daily basis. They believe the more voters see of Trump the more it will remind them why they chose to evict him from the White House four years ago. In addition to putting his unhinged and boorish behavior on full display in front of tens of millions of voters, a debate will also force Trump to answer questions about his role in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, the key role he played in overturning Roe v. Wade, and his plan to cut taxes for his billionaire buddies. And the upside for the Biden campaign of forcing an erratic and undisciplined Trump out of his self-selected comfort zone of right-wing media and screaming fans at rallies into a more combative environment is clear.

The Biden camp also clearly believes it can win the expectations game. Which in the modern era of presidential debates is half the game.

The only way Biden is going to convince voters that his age is not an issue, and he has the stamina for another four years in office is to show, not tell. And if done right, a debate is a perfect way to do that.

Repeatedly, Trump, and his allies, have tried to portray Biden as too feeble to even get out of bed in the morning. A strong debate performance that beats expectations could be a massive win for the president. While most campaigns try to lower expectations for their own candidate and raise expectations for their opponents, the “very stable genius” of Mar-a-Lago is doing the exact opposite. In accepting the debate offer, Trump called Biden the worst debater he’s ever faced. Another in a long series of comments from Trump that lower the bar for Biden to the floor. So, if Biden can beat expectations, as he did with his State of the Union address, his recent address to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and his debate with Trump in 2020, it could have a huge payoff for Biden.

But even with all this upside, there is also significant risk for Biden in this gambit.

CNN, the host of the first debate, does not have a great history of fact-checking or holding Trump accountable for spewing lies faster than most people breathe. In fact, they did such a poor job of it last summer when they hosted Trump for a town hall, it, in part, cost the head of CNN his job.

But it is not just CNN. In every live interview Trump has done over the last few years, he has acted like a bull in a china shop, bucking every rule, norm, and shred of decency. And he will do so again in this debate. All while Biden will be expected to act “presidential.”

And while Trump lying with every other word he speaks will be treated as the norm by the media and yawned at, a small Biden misstep will be treated as massive news and live on throughout the remainder of the campaign.

Trump has so numbed our collective sense of outrage that anything short of punching Biden in the face will be treated as just “Trump being Trump” and written off as why his voters love him. Meanwhile, if Biden misstates one fact or stutters while giving an answer, it will be used by the media to reinforce the negative narratives around him.

Ever since his first campaign, Trump has been graded on a curve. And a debate would be no different.

I concluded my piece last summer by saying, “As the famous saying goes, never wrestle with pigs—you both get dirty, and the pig likes it. The 2024 election version of that is don’t hand the mic to a pathological liar. All you get is a flood of lies, but the liar likes it.”

That is still true. But little the Biden campaign has done to date has been able to move the needle on the election, and time is running short. So, he’s betting big.

He could be rewarded for it, big-time. But it is not without significant risk.

Doug Gordon is a Democratic strategist and co-founder of UpShift Strategies who has worked on numerous federal, state, and local campaigns and on Capitol Hill. He is on Twitter at @dgordon52.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.