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The Debate About the Debate About Debates
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The Debate About the Debate About Debates

Two debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump are on the schedule—for now.

A staff member of former President Donald Trump places a sign calling for a debate between Trump and President Joe Biden during a campaign rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, on May 11, 2024. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Five months ago, I wondered if we hadn’t seen the final debate of the 2024 presidential cycle, even before the general election began.

So I was surprised and encouraged to see the news this week that the candidates had agreed to two debates, one hosted by CNN next month and another in September by ABC News. It was also encouraging to see that what appeared to be a spontaneous public negotiation conducted via social media was actually, according to the New York Times, the public expression of “back-channel talks” between “senior officials in the two campaigns.”

The public posturing and macho gurgling was a bit of theater to mask the ugly truth: The campaigns had acted in a mature, pragmatic fashion with each other. In an election like this, the last thing you want to get caught doing is treating the other side with respect. Heaven forfend.

But will it last? At least long enough for one of the debates to actually take place?

Republicans two years ago took the astonishingly foolish and totally unnecessary step of dropping out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan vehicle by which the two major parties had arranged presidential debates since 1988. Democrats had been looking for a way out of the three-debate format of the commission for some time, but it would have been very hard for the incumbent president, the candidate who says he champions decorum and institutions, to drop out. But once the Republicans split, which the Democratic National Committee at the time called “a tantrum,” life got much easier.

Republicans rooted their departure in claims of bias in the moderation of debates, but did not think through that, as the party out of power, they would be the ones who needed debates more than the incumbent. So out they went, lessening the pressure on Biden. Incumbents typically don’t want to debate. Incumbents who struggle even in uninterrupted, unmoderated public remarks especially do not.

Challenger Donald Trump soon realized the error, and by this spring said he would debate Biden anywhere, any time, including going back into the commission. But the Biden team obviously wasn’t interested in having three debates, especially with a crowd present, and, most dangerously for the incumbent, one town hall debate that requires interacting with voters.

So they struck a deal. And what they got was a lot: One network (not the kind of roadblock coverage on every network that delivers tens of millions of viewers), no audience, muted microphones for the candidate not on the clock, and mainstream media moderators of exactly the kind that had led the Republicans to break with the commission in the first place.

One assumes another part of the deal was that Trump would not engage in a debate about debates, to honor the deal. What Biden presumably wants out of his agreement to face Trump is not just a favorable setting, but also to not have to keep hearing about how Trump is challenging him to more contests.

How long do we expect Trump to honor that part of the pact? As it occurs to him and Republicans that they got rolled pretty thoroughly by the Biden campaign here, one imagines it will get pretty hard for Trump to stay schtum.

It will also occur to the Republicans that the expectations game is going to be pretty brutal for their guy, as well. Trump’s wild performance in the first 2020 debate hurt him badly in his reelection bid, so one imagines his advisers are counseling Trump to play it cooler and let Biden’s inevitable stumbles be the story of the night. But will CNN’s Jake Tapper let Trump hang back? Seems unlikely.

If Trump does start grousing about the deal or challenging Biden to other contests, say one on a friendly network, it wouldn’t take very much at all for the debate-averse incumbent to call the whole thing off. 

I suspect that the debate, at least the first one, will probably take place. But neither would I be surprised if the whole thing goes kablooey before they ever get to the lecterns.     

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, 

reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 39.6%
Average disapproval: 57.4%
Net score: -17.8 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.2 points

Change from one month ago: ↓ 1.8 points

[Average includes: Fox News: 45% approve-55% disapprove; ABC/Ipsos: 35% approve-57% disapprove; CNN: 41% approve-59% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 35% approve-61% disapprove; Monmouth: 42% approve-55% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


Wall Street Journal: “Sophisticated artist or folk musician? Virtuoso or clown? The debate about Louis Armstrong raged in living rooms across mid-20th-century America. … Did the jazz master’s eye-rolling antics—his minstrel-like mugging, moaning into the microphone, waving sweat-soaked handkerchiefs and shaggy-dog storytelling—make him even more lovable or undercut his seriousness? … Armstrong fine-tuned his artist-showman persona when he started playing first to mixed-race audiences and, by the early 1950s, to predominantly white ones. … Louis Armstrong’s mask was his smile, a full-faced, unquenchable beam that was analyzed more than the Mona Lisa’s and hid an ever-shifting range of emotions. … Even the most narrow-minded or dimwitted nightclub patron or movie watcher could sense Armstrong’s warmth, humor and genius. How else to account for his becoming, by midcentury, the most recognized and celebrated artist on the planet? Trying to separate the artist from the prankster represented, with him, a false dichotomy. The two existed in splendid harmony.” 


New York Times: “Donald J. Trump leads in five of the six battleground states among likely voters. … What’s more surprising is the U.S. Senate results. This is the first time we’ve asked about Senate races this year, and the Democratic candidates led in all four of the states we tested: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada. Not only do Democrats lead, but they also seem to do so in an entirely customary way, with ordinary levels of support from young and nonwhite voters. … Nevada was ground zero for this striking ticket splitting. Mr. Trump led the poll by a staggering 12 points among registered voters, thanks to an eye-popping nine-point lead among Hispanic voters and a 13-point lead among those 18 to 29. But in the Senate race, everything looks ‘normal.’ The Democratic senator Jacky Rosen led her likeliest Republican challenger by two points. … This level of crossover voting has been extremely rare in the last few years.” 

GOP PAC drops $70 million into Senate battlegrounds: Politico: “One Nation, a top conservative group, is plowing $70 million more into hitting vulnerable Democrats in key Senate races.  … The group is diving into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada in a sweeping ad buy focused on the southern border and inflation, an effort branded as the ‘Stop the Insanity’ campaign. The push includes spending on radio, mail, TV and digital. … The group will start $28.6 million in ads in Ohio on May 22 and $18.6 million in Pennsylvania starting in mid-June. The group previously announced a $17.9 million tranche of ads in Montana. … The campaign excludes two other prospective battlegrounds in Arizona and Maryland, though money could be added later this summer.” 

Montana’s tribal voters crucial to Tester’s survival: Politico: “Native Americans are always an important voting bloc in Montana, where they make up 6.5 percent of the population, per U.S. Census data. But this November, their involvement could potentially impact the entire nation. … The largest question looming over the Native American vote in 2024 will not be whom they vote for — rather, it will be if they show up to vote at all. … While nearly every Montana county saw a decline in turnout between 2018 and 2022, the only counties where turnout went down more than 20 points were the majority-Native counties of Glacier and Blaine. … To rectify this, Montana Democrats are rolling out their largest-ever Native voting initiative, planning to invest more than $1 million over the next six months. … Native organizers around the state will host events and ensure candidates up and down the ballot show up to important functions like powwows and community feeds.” 

Justice bound for D.C. after primary win over Mooney: Wheeling [West Virginia] Intelligencer: “Confirming what many of the polls have been saying for more than a year, Republican and independent voters overwhelmingly showed their support for Gov. Jim Justice. … Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott secured the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in a three-way race. … Justice received more than 122,900 votes, or 62% of the vote compared to U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., who received … 27% of the votes cast. … First elected as governor in 2016 as the Democratic nominee, Justice switched his registration to the Republican Party in 2017, announcing his party switch at a Huntington rally with former president Donald Trump, who also endorsed Justice for U.S. Senate.” 

Hogan pushes indy creds in deep-blue Maryland: Politico: “Larry Hogan just sailed through a GOP primary. His next act: shedding that partisan identity. … Hogan’s math is daunting: He needs to peel away enough Democratic votes in a state that Trump lost by 33 points without alienating the Republicans that will form the core of his coalition. … On Wednesday, Hogan rolled out a ‘Democrats for Hogan’ coalition led by a former Democratic state senator. The announcement described Hogan as ‘bipartisan and independent’ — and doesn’t mention he’s a Republican at all. … Hogan will need to keep the Maryland Senate race from boiling down to a referendum on Senate control so he’s focusing on his track record as a popular anti-Trump governor with a history of working across the aisle.” 

Once a proud progressive, Gallego tries a moderate rebrand: Washington Post: “For years, [Rep. Ruben Gallego] has vigorously championed a comprehensive immigration overhaul offering legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Now, Gallego also emphasizes urging President Biden to free up resources for Border Patrol. … And when he faced a primary challenger for his seat in 2018, Gallego campaigned as a ‘real progressive,’ and he belonged, for eight years, to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Now, Gallego is no longer a member of the group. … Gallego, 44, has raced to the political middle in a state with strong moderate and independent streaks. … Gallego allies see a ripening opportunity, particularly with Sinema, a former Democrat who became an independent in 2022, not competing for many of the same voters he is courting.” 


Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “With another term safely in hand, [Sen. Raphael Warnock] and Biden are now more closely linked than ever as the president fights to repeat his victory in Georgia. … Democrats see Warnock as a rare politician who can help mobilize not only the Black voters who are the pillar of the party, but also white swing voters who were a key factor in Democratic wins the past two elections. … As pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock commands the pulpit of the nation’s most famous Black congregation, giving him a platform on moral and religious issues confronting the nation. And as polls showed a tight rematch in Georgia — and signs of apathy among liberal voters of color who once flocked to Biden’s standard — Warnock has countered the sky-is-falling narrative.” 

RFK Jr. VP pick dumps another $8 million into campaign: New York Times: “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s running mate, the Silicon Valley investor Nicole Shanahan, said on Wednesday night that she had given another $8 million to their independent presidential campaign as it carries out the expensive endeavor of gaining ballot access. … Ms. Shanahan’s personal wealth has been a significant asset for Mr. Kennedy. While campaign finance laws constrain individuals from donating more than $6,600 to a campaign, the candidates themselves can give unlimited sums of their own money. … Both candidates were seeking to keep Mr. Kennedy off the stage. … To qualify for the CNN debate, Mr. Kennedy must also get on the ballot in enough states so that he could potentially win the 270 Electoral College votes needed to be elected president.” 


House Republicans flock to Trump trial—Axios

SCOTUS allows Louisiana map with second majority-black district—NBC News

Bernie bids for fourth term at 82—Burlington Free Press

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth bests former Capitol Police Officer in Maryland’s 3rd District—Washington Post


“If I had started a little bit earlier, I would have been able to have six Bob Fergusons.”— Glen Morgan, a conservative activist, recruits two candidates named Bob Ferguson to run against Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson in the Washington gubernatorial primary. The decoy Bobs are running as Democrats in an attempt to split the Bob Ferguson vote in the August primary.


“Characterizing Biden’s presidency as middling grossly overrates him and is unfair to those to whom you compared him—Ford, Truman, Carter, and Hayes. Putting him in the James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson camp would correctly place him in the category of weak, incompetent, ornery, and destructive. The list of disastrous policies is long: the Afghanistan pullout, expressed insouciance to a minor Russian incursion into Ukraine, deserting Israel in its hour of peril, fueling inflation with budget-busting spending, promoting an open border with migrants overwhelming northern cities as well as border states, putting government in the censorship business, crippling and demoralizing the military financially and with counterproductive DEI policies and on and on. Add to that his delusionary conceit that he’s fit to serve another term and uniquely capable of defeating Trump. Trump is a terrible alternative who doesn’t deserve support, but voting for Biden is unthinkable.”—David Barkhausen, Fernandina Beach, Florida

Mr. Barkhausen,

I think Republicans are hoping that a lot of the voters who turned away from Trump after January 6, 2021, feel the same way. Voters like you are for the red team like the young progressives are for the Democrats: Dissatisfied members of their political base who they need to come back not out of enthusiasm, but out of disgust or fear for the other side.

That’s sort of what this election overall is shaping up to be. Which side can convince more of their people to hold their noses and vote one more time for the lesser of two evils. The most effective way for them to do that won’t be as much about reminding voters of their antipathies for the other side, but heightening the stakes of the contest. 

All best,


“How much of Biden’s recent mistakes are the result of the people he has around him, or is it him? Seeing the recent piece by the former Clinton acolyte (Mark Penn), I am beginning to ascribe to the notion that Biden is getting bad advice. To right the ship so to speak, he needs to dump them or at a minimum stop listening to them. The Middle is there for the taking since Trump is fixated on the far Right. What do you think?”—David Dozier, Riverview, Florida

Mr. Dozier,

As we discussed last week, the upside to upsetting your base is supposed to be strange new respect from the middle. And as you observe, Biden has mostly only been getting the former with very little of the latter. 

How much of that is bad advice and how much is bad judgment on his part? Probably some combination of both. But one thing that belongs to Biden alone is his deficiency as a messenger. 

If a politician is going to try to straddle an issue, she or he needs to make sure that people know where their heart is. 

All best,


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes, and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let us know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the careful, cautious, and earnest Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


President Joe Biden speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on May 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House on May 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Wow oh wowie what a slew of submissions! A lot of you funny people lined up over the same targets, so we had to leave quite a few great ones out, but at least you know you lost out to some very primo stuff, including our winner:

“The president joins National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a conference call with other world leaders on his special ‘Biden phone.’”—Mike Wolfe, Prompton, Pennsylvania

Winner, Wrath of Khan Division:

“Encouraged by RFK, Jr. admission, President Joe Biden reveals earwig struggle”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, No Malarkey Division:

“On my honor as a Biden, I heard Mr. Graham say, ‘Mr. Biden, come here. I need you.’”—Bill Marsh, Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina

Winner, Coastal Grandfather Aesthetic Division: 

“We would hold the seashell up to our ear … I’m not making this up … You could hear the OCEAN”—Allan Mabry, Dallas, Texas

Winner, Take the Under Division:

“Hello. Caesar’s? This is POTUS. What are the current odds on my reelection? … Hello? Speak up. I can’t hear you.”—Steve Wilson, Batavia, Ohio

Winner, Worth a Shot Division:

“The answer is C.”—Scott Nelson, Dallas, Texas


NBC News: “American sports may have seen its most epic battle of the year: a single raccoon vs a team of men trying to capture it with trash cans. The stripy-tailed interloper stopped play for almost two minutes in the Major League Soccer game between Philadelphia Union and New York City FC on Wednesday night, prompting a battle of wit and skill with staff members on the field of Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. ‘We need to find him a ball, because he’s moving very well in the center of midfield,’ said Callum Williams, the commentator on Apple TV … Dubbed ‘Raquinho’ by some, it now holds the not particularly well-contested record of having spent the most minutes by any raccoon on the field in MLS history, the league said. … A local pest control company picked up the raccoon and released back into the wild, the Philadelphia Union said in a statement on X.”

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.