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Biden’s In (the Race), Trump Is Out (of the Debates)
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Biden’s In (the Race), Trump Is Out (of the Debates)

The incumbent announces his reelection bid, while Trump says he isn’t going to debate his GOP opponents.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., April 25, 2023. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Salad

Joe Biden finally announced he was running again for president. At the risk of being that person: I told you so. 

I saw in the comments section recently that someone said my political takes were too “conventional.” This person preferred, “say, AB Stoddard’s bold prediction that Biden won’t run.” I know it’s fun to have someone tell you something juicy or something that you want to hear. But shouldn’t it matter just a little bit that I was right? Le sigh. 

As a former Biden senior adviser told me this morning, “You don’t run for president to serve four years; you run for eight.” Of course, Biden was always running again!! Haven’t any of you people ever met a politician?!?! 

Biden’s announcement video—which didn’t include an in-person event—opens with a shot of January 6 and the first words out of Biden’s mouth are “freedom.” Then he says the work of his first term has been “to fight for our democracy.” Like Seinfeld, one could describe this as a video about nothing. 

And that was the point.

The Biden campaign knows how it won in 2020—and what worked in 2018 and 2022. Let the election be a referendum on Trump, which the former president and his party are only too happy to go along with—inexplicably since Trump won in 2016 when the race became a referendum on Hillary Clinton in the final days thanks to then-FBI Director Jim Comey. Biden will be the no-drama alternative, the one plugging away at the office while the other guy is getting into bar fights and yelling about how nobody understands he could have caught that touchdown pass back in high school if the coach had put him in. 

Where I think the Biden team is potentially making a mistake is assuming that Trump will be the easier candidate to beat. It’s what the polls say. And it feels right to some extent. But … Trump on the ballot is different. He lost in 2020 but he came a hell of a lot closer than the polls said he would. And there’s a wild-card aspect to running against a Trump campaign that isn’t true against literally any other candidate we’ve seen—he’s unpredictable in ways that hurt him, sure, but it’s also clearly helped him against more polished opponents. Ron DeSantis may be more attractive to some independent voters, which is what is showing up in the polls right now, but he’s not Donald Trump. For better. And for worse. 

Chicken Dinner

This is the age-old game that happens anytime one candidate is way ahead.

There is no upside to a debate for a candidate with such a lead. Debates elevate challengers but give those in the lead nothing but a chance to make game-changing mistakes.The down-in-the-polls opponents need the debate and get to accuse the leader of being “chicken.” There’s only upside for them. 

Think of it this way: Why would Joe Biden ever agree to a debate with Marianne Williamson and  Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? And why would Williamson and Kennedy ever say no? But nobody thinks Biden is afraid to debate them. 

I don’t think Trump is afraid. I think he’s—perhaps surprisingly—rational. If he slips behind DeSantis in the polls, believe me, he’ll show up to the debate. But unless and until that happens, don’t hold your breath.

Now the more interesting question is what happens if Trump never decides the debate is worth his time. In this hypothetical, DeSantis is double digits ahead of Pence, Haley, Scott, and Christie. Does DeSantis show up to debate? On the one hand, he still needs to beat Trump and a lot of people will tune into the debate because they enjoy political blood sports. Lots of eyeballs. Lots of opportunities to win converts. On the other hand, the same rules apply—everyone else on that stage will be gunning for him and he’s elevating his single-digit opponents just by showing up. 

This is where it really helps to know your candidate. If Carly were in the DeSantis position, I’d put her on the stage. She shines in debates and she loves being attacked. If I had Sen. Marco Rubio, I’d probably skip. His political talents are numerous but they aren’t on a debate stage. DeSantis is a lawyer so you’d think he’d be good at debates, but I’ve noticed a funny thing about candidate-lawyers: they tend to think they’re being scored by their high school debate coach and not by American voters who are watching while they’re chatting or cooking dinner or flipping between the debate and The Bachelorette. They can look smarmy and too cute by half. Ted Cruz is probably the most talented technical debater to set foot in the Senate for 100 years. But I never thought it translated all that well in the 2016 presidential debates.

But the real question is whether the DeSantis team thinks 1) he can catch Trump at that point, 2) whether they’re willing to put his political future all in on 2024, and 3) whether they think they have any alternative to the debates to get the job done. We’ll see. 

First, if Trump is ahead by 20+ points, at some point, that lead becomes insurmountable and everything else is moot. But I’ll add some caveats to that. I could imagine a world in which Trump is ahead by double digits in national polls, but the DeSantis team has been so relentless and singularly focused on Iowa and New Hampshire that they are tied in state polling. If DeSantis can pull off a win in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump’s national polling will crater. 

Second, assuming there’s still a path for DeSantis, his team will need to decide whether they’re willing to bet it all. I’d hope that just by deciding to run against Trump, somebody on his team has already had this talk with him, but it goes something like this: 

[My best Leo McGarry voice]: Sir, this is your last term as governor of Florida. (Yes, technically the state constitution bars only a third consecutive term, but that’s beside the point of this conversation.) But in 2028, hell, Trump’ll be dead and you can run for president without him calling you Meatball Ron every day. Worst case, Marco’s seat will be back up and we can get him to step aside or we can beat him in a head-to-head. Either way, you’ll be president or in the Senate for life if that’s what you want. But if you run this time and Trump sets his sights on you, there’s a real chance you won’t recover. So if we do this, you gotta go in knowing that it could be an all-or-nothing battle. Once we’re in, we fight to the death.

When it comes to deciding whether to go to the debate, then, this little talk matters because there are real, potentially game-changing upsides to debating even without Trump on the stage under my scenario. And if your candidate sees this as a death match, then it doesn’t really matter what the downsides are because the ultimate downside of not winning is, umm, death. (Politically speaking, of course.)

Third, are there any alternatives to get across the finish line? This is where things get dicey. You’d think that someone interested in running for PRESIDENT OF THE WHOLE FREAKING UNITED STATES OF AMERICA would be a high risk taking individual. You’d be wrong. They actually tend to be very risk averse and they get even more risk averse as they get closer to the prize. (Once again, Donald Trump’s 2016 race may be an exception—although I’d argue he didn’t really run a campaign at all, so it’s sort of hard to characterize it either way—and in 2020, it certainly seemed pretty traditional to me all things considered.)

I could write a doctoral thesis on how the failed campaigns of John McCain in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 both succumbed to “I can almost see it” syndrome. They started to think they could see the brass ring close at hand and they got the yips. They stopped doing what got them to that point, listened slavishly to the conventional wisdom that was being pumped into the room like oxygen, and started making highly risk averse decisions when in fact they were always the underdogs and needed to be making very high risk decisions if they wanted any hope of winning. 

And don’t come at me with, “What about Sarah Palin?” That looks high risk now because it blew up in McCain’s face. At the time, Palin was by far the more conventional choice—a tell-it-like-it -is, conservative, attractive female governor—over Joe Leiberman, which is whom 2000 John McCain would have picked. 

The riskiest thing Barack Obama ever did in his entire life was deciding to run against Hillary Clinton in the first place. The campaign itself—which downplayed race, didn’t come out in favor of gay marriage, and didn’t really have any particular policies front and center—was all risk averse from there.

Back to the DeSantis Decision™. When push comes to shove, the campaign will be looking for whether there is a less risky way to get across the finish line. And there almost certainly will be one. It will minimize the downsides (“We could do a town hall in Cedar Rapids that night!” said every campaign operative on every losing campaign every four years), but it will also blunt the upsides. And it will be so so so very tempting to a risk-averse candidate. 

What will DeSantis do in the end? Assuming Trump doesn’t show up, he probably doesn’t either. Because I forgot the fourth factor that applies to every presidential candidate for every decision: ego. 

Dessert

Are you tired of feeling like you have the same old choices for president cycle after cycle? It’s not you, it’s them: “Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump (accounting for 10 of the 18 candidacies above) were born within a single 24-month stretch.”

https://twitter.com/derektmuller/status/1650824405071560707?s=12&t=7NB_F3aMW_t_o8KBKB4plw

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.