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As dark as this newsletter was on Monday, it would have been much darker had it been published a day later.

That’s because Axios reported on Tuesday morning that Joe Biden and his team really, truly do not believe the polls showing him losing to Donald Trump.

We’re all used to campaign flacks affecting confidence when speaking to the media about an election while quietly sweating bullets behind closed doors. In politics, BS is the coin of the realm. But the public confidence evinced by the White House isn’t BS this time, Axios insisted. Biden and his advisers sound the way they do because they’re trapped in a thick bubble of denial about his electoral chances.

As with addiction, so too with foundering presidential campaigns: The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. If Team Joe doesn’t recognize that it has a problem, it’s doomed.

Tuesday was dark—but Wednesday is suddenly brighter. At long last, the president does seem to grasp that he has a problem and is responding accordingly.

I can only speculate that the Axios piece freaked out enough Democratic bigwigs that an emergency intervention with Biden and his staff was staged. Picture a group of left-wing operatives, led by former Chief of Staff Ron Klain, queueing up to slap some sense into the president a la the nervous-passenger scene in Airplane!

Team Biden appears to have emerged from the beating with a newfound awareness about the true state of the race and a commensurate sense of urgency. After all, if a candidate is demanding debates, it’s usually because he’s trailing and he knows it.

Joe Biden is trailing. I think he finally knows it.

By the same token, if a candidate is ahead and he knows it, he has no reason to put his lead at risk by agreeing to debate. That was Trump’s strategy in this year’s Republican primary and it worked beautifully for him. Despite endless complaints from Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley that the alleged alpha dog of the Republican Party was afraid of a fight, Trump understood that he had more to lose than to gain by showing up and presenting himself as a target. He skipped the debates and ended up breezing to the nomination.

One might think he’d follow the same playbook with Biden. One would be wrong.

It’s Trump, the frontrunner, who for months has been eager to debate his opponent. He’s so eager, in fact, that he immediately accepted when Biden challenged him to square off in June and September and counteroffered by proposing two more events in July and August. In a matter of hours after the president posted his video on Wednesday morning, both sides had tentatively agreed to meet on June 27 on CNN and on September 10 on ABC News.

That’s pretty eager! Pretty stupid, too.

The bubble of political denial in which Trump lives is considerably thicker than Biden’s, as he’s reminded us every day for the past three-and-a-half years whenever the subject of the 2020 election is broached.

Another reality Trump is in denial about is that he’s a weak debater.

He can be an effective debater, like when he uncorks a memorable insult at an opponent that ends up defining that candidate’s persona. But his narcissism requires him to believe that he’s skilled at the art generally, which explains how he came away from the fiasco of his first bout with Biden four years ago believing that his performance had been “superb.

Next month will mark nine years that Trump has been a major political figure and, as his recent interview with Time magazine demonstrates, he still can’t answer questions about policy with any meaningful degree of cogency. He also lacks the self-discipline to seize the upcoming debates as an opportunity to reassure voters who are wary of his temperament. He would benefit by coming off as subdued and laser-focused on the failures of Biden’s presidency, but he won’t be able to resist raving about his criminal trials and, of course, the “rigged election” that ousted him from power so unfairly.

It’s not a coincidence that one of his most loyal toadies, Sean Hannity, is excited that Biden’s debate proposal calls for cutting off each candidate’s microphone when he exceeds his allotted speaking time. The more Trump talks, the more trouble he’s apt to make for himself. The moderators will be doing the “great debater” a favor by shutting him up.

The other reality Trump is in denial about is that Joe Biden isn’t a vegetable.

Don’t get me wrong: The president looks and sounds every day of his 81 years. He’s feebler physically and mentally than he was before he took office. But years of right-wing propaganda depicting the Biden presidency as a sustained Weekend at Bernie’s caper has plainly infected Trump’s brain and convinced him that the debates will lay bare his opponent’s unfitness for office in some garish way.

To hear him and his courtiers talk today, one would think it’s more likely than not that Biden will simply fail to remain coherent for the duration. Sen. Josh Hawley noted five cuts in the 13-second video the president released and wondered, “What will Biden do in a debate when his many handlers can’t edit and splice his sentences together?” Trump himself told Hugh Hewitt in an interview this morning that it’s “important” the candidates be standing at podiums when they meet rather than seated, as he’s skeptical Biden can muster that for two hours under his own power.

For Biden, the entire point of debating Trump is to show an enormous audience of voters that reports of his cognitive demise have been greatly exaggerated. Under those circumstances, it’s insanity for Republicans to help him out by lowering expectations for his performance further. One would think Biden’s enemies would have learned their lesson about that by now, as they make the same mistake each year before the State of the Union address and are forced to resort to conspiracy theories afterward to explain the “surprising” wherewithal he ends up demonstrating.

It’s possible, in fact, if not probable that Biden will sound more coherent and detailed than his opponent when discussing policy at the debates and will aggressively draw viewers’ attention to the contrast. Were I that opponent, I would take care not to heighten the impact of his tactic by assuring everyone in advance that the president is non compos mentis and will be lucky to survive the debate.

What I would do, frankly, is skip the debates entirely.

Trump is winning this race, after all, because on balance voters view it as a referendum on the incumbent, as typically happens when the president is on the ballot. But this ballot is unusual in that it features two presidents, not one, and the challenger did poorly enough in his first go-round in office that voters felt obliged to toss him out after one term. All of that being so, if I were Trump I’d do everything I could to stay out of sight and keep the focus on Biden, preserving the “referendum” dynamic from which I’ve benefited so far. That means no debates.

Naturally, Trump is going to do the opposite, handing Biden not one but at least two televised platforms to remind Americans why they hate his opponent and why the election is in fact a choice between two options, not a referendum on one. And a choice with enormous consequences for the Western liberal order to boot.

Pretty stupid, all in all. And with respect to the tone, timing, and format of the scheme that’s been proposed, pretty clever by Biden.

The “make my day” pugnacity of Wednesday’s video challenge is clever, and not just because it gives the divided, dejected anti-Trump coalition a small morale boost.

It’s clever because some of Trump’s savvier advisers might eventually penetrate his narcissism and convince him that he’s doing Biden a favor by agreeing to these debates. Better to deny the president a gigantic TV audience and let the voting public go about believing that he’s waaaaay too old to serve a second term than to put a spotlight on him and give him a chance to persuade them otherwise.

Realistically, that’s the closest Biden can get to a game-changing moment in his favor between now and November.

Trump might wise up to all of that before June 27 and decide that he doesn’t want to debate after all. But Biden’s tough-guy shtick will make it harder for the Republican to back out: Trump can’t stand seeming “weak,” and ducking Old Man Joe after the incumbent has personally and publicly questioned his courage by daring him to show up risks doing that. MAGA fans are now hyped to see their hero humiliate his opponent. He can’t let them down.

It’s the “pro wrestling” ethos of Trumpy politics turned against its chief practitioner. The champ can’t refuse to get in the ring when he’s being taunted.

The timing of the two debates proposed by Biden is interesting too.

Some observers like Nate Silver marveled that June—and even September—are awfully early for presidential debates. Historically the candidates do most of their face-to-face combat in October, when late deciders have begun to pay attention. If Biden is serious about using the debates to show voters that he’s up for four more years, shouldn’t he wait until the last possible moment, when public interest is peaking?

I don’t think so. Not this time. And not just because the prevalence of early voting in modern America means that elections now begin long before November.

Harry Enten, CNN’s election analyst, noted today that polls don’t shift down the stretch in presidential campaigns as much as they used to. Most voters appear to be making up their minds earlier in the process, as one might expect in a country that’s grown more polarized over time. And the effect could be more pronounced this year, when voters already have strong, well-informed opinions about both candidates.

If you want to give them second thoughts about their preferred candidate, in other words, you might need to start earlier than usual in the campaign before that preference locks in. And if, as I suggested above, Biden’s big problem is that too many Americans still view the election as a referendum on him, there’s no time to spare in convincing them to approach it instead as a choice between him and a coup-plotter.

Trump must be placed front and center in the campaign as soon as possible. I’m less confident than Team Biden seems to be that Americans will do the right thing once they squarely face the prospect of returning a civic menace to power, but the White House is certainly correct in believing that Trump himself is the best advertisement against a second Trump term. Biden can’t win a campaign that operates as a referendum, but he might win a campaign that operates as a choice.

Go figure, then, that he wants voters to confront that choice at the first available opportunity. That means a presidential debate in June.

Of course, Biden could have proposed debates in October in addition to the two earlier ones, as Silver suggested. And if he’s still trailing in the race following the September debate, I think he will. (Although good luck getting Trump to agree in that scenario). But there’s a reason why he wants only two instead of four or more: He really is more feeble than he was when he ran for president the first time and he knows that voters will be scrutinizing him for evidence of it. One bad “senior moment” under the lights risks destroying his campaign. He’s trying to hedge against that risk by limiting the number of debates while also demonstrating that he’s game enough to handle multiple confrontations with Trump, not just one.

If Biden is destined to have a “senior moment,” he’ll want it to happen as early as possible so that he and his team have a chance to recover somehow. Were he and Trump to debate in late October and the president to lose his train of thought at a key moment, the election would be over. It’s probably over if it happens at the June or September debate as well, but in that case he’d at least have some time afterward to try to do damage control.

Plus, realistically, who’s going to watch more than two presidential debates? I get paid to care about this stuff and even I would pray for death if Steve Hayes required me to sit through a third battle of wits between these two.

Still, the most intriguing part of the president’s debate proposal to Trump has to do with the format.

Joe Biden is supposed to be the “norms” candidate, which, one would think, requires him to demand the involvement of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) that’s overseen the process since 1988. The Republican National Committee preemptively quit the CPD two years ago due to “bias”; in our polarized age, that would seem to all but require Democrats to pledge eternal allegiance to the institution.

Not so. In a letter on Wednesday, Team Biden made clear that their debates with Trump will not take place under the auspices of the commission. How come? What about norms?

There is a relevant debate norm that the White House is worried about, but it has nothing to do with who runs the process. It has to do with ensuring that the debates are strictly a two-candidate affair. The last time a third candidate qualified for the stage, the election didn’t turn out well for an unpopular incumbent president.

Under CPD rules, a presidential candidate must have qualified for the ballot in enough states to potentially win 270 electoral votes and reached 15 percent in five national polls in order to be included in a debate. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is doing surprisingly well at gathering the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot across the country, most recently in Texas. And he currently stands at 10.8 percent in national polling, touching 16 percent in two separate polls within the past month.

Team Biden is plainly terrified that if they stuck with the commission they would also end up stuck with rules that would require the inclusion of Kennedy onstage. That would be Democrats’ worst nightmare, as it would give RFK a massive dose of free national publicity and an opportunity to second Trump’s attacks on the incumbent. Kennedy’s presence would defeat the purpose of the debates from Biden’s standpoint, which is to remind voters that they have a binary choice between him and an amoral insurrectionist. A third candidate onstage means it’s not binary; disgruntled Trump-haters who were leaning toward Biden as the lesser of two evils might come away leaning toward RFK instead.

The same goes for Trump, of course, who has his own reasons to want Kennedy excluded from the debate. Neither he nor Biden is confident that RFK will hurt the other side more than their own so they’re locking arms, dispensing with the CPD, and heading off to independent venues they can control and from which they can bar Kennedy.

And Kennedy knows it.

Ditching the commission means this election will be slightly more normal than it might otherwise have been.

But only slightly.

A fun thought experiment is what would happen to the race if Biden did, in fact, horribly botch the first debate in June, as incumbent presidents are wont to do.

And by “fun,” I of course mean “terrifying.”

With Americans suddenly affirmed in their suspicions that the old man is out of gas mentally, the race would be functionally over with months to go. European allies would scramble to “Trump-proof” the transatlantic relationship; Democrats would come under intense pressure to replace Biden at the convention in August; chumps like me would sink into our own bubble of denial about the possibility of a Biden rebound at the second debate, reassuring ourselves that Americans cannot possibly be preparing to actually reelect Donald Trump.

We could find ourselves there as soon as six weeks from now. The stakes of the debates, especially the first one, will be nothing more or less than the future of the constitutional order. 

No pressure.

But there’s no alternative to following through with them. Biden is behind, he needs to catch up, and his best chance to do so is to reassure the electorate that he’s still fit for office with a bravura debate performance. This is what happens when your party’s leader is over 80, his job approval has been sinking for two and a half years, inflation remains stubborn, and yet you can’t muster the political will to pressure him into retiring in a timely way. You’re left with big, ultra-risky plays to regain your electoral advantage that probably won’t work. If Biden can’t rise to the occasion, Democrats will rue the decisions they’ve made forever.