Do They Make A Difference? It’s Debatable

The most certain thing about Thursday’s debate between President Biden and former President Trump is its uncertainty.  No one knows what to expect.  Two old, unpopular candidates, running even in the polls with just over four months to go, competing in a debate held in June — unprecedented in its early position on the calendar.  The first presidential rematch since Eisenhower and Stevenson in the pre-debate year of 1956.  The first attempt by a defeated president to regain his job since Grover Cleveland in 1892.  If the politics of today weren’t so despicable, it would be fun to look at the ways history is being made.

We have no idea if we’ll still be talking about the CNN debate in November, as voters seem to have this propensity to forget things; what January 6th insurrection?  In fact, the most significant debate in presidential history — the one and only encounter between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980 — probably owes its importance to the fact that it was held merely a week to go before the election … which gave Carter, considered the loser in the debate, no time to rebound.  Reagan’s “there you go again” and “are you better off now than you were four years ago” moved the former California governor into a polling lead that he never relinquished.

Of course, Reagan was thought to have an insurmountable lead four years later as he prepared to meet Walter Mondale in their first of two debates, Oct. 7th, in Louisville.  But in that debate, the president seemed way off his game. He was tentative, seemingly tired, disorganized and not in full command of the facts. Most observers thought Mondale clearly won the debate, and the polls started to show some movement in the former vice president’s direction. Reagan still held the lead, but Mondale was inching upwards.

That put increased attention on the second, and final, debate between the two, on Oct. 21st in Kansas City. Whatever chances Mondale had seemed to vanish the moment Reagan uttered his now-famous line in response to a panelist’s question about his ability to handle a crisis, given his age. Without telegraphing the zinger that was to follow, Reagan said with a straight face, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In many eyes, that was game, set, match. The audience erupted in laughter, as did Mondale. He knew his opportunity vanished.

The fact is, the second debate was not necessarily good for Reagan either. In his closing statement, he offered a seemingly incoherent story about a letter that was to be placed in a time capsule and rambled on about his thoughts while he was driving down the California coast. If memory serves, it was wince-inducing. But because of the “youth and inexperience” line, people saw the president as the winner.

So one should be advised not to come to any judgments after one debate.

Similarly, in 2012, in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, on Oct. 3rd in Denver, Obama was more like Nobama. He was surprisingly flat, disengaged and uninspiring, giving off the vibe that he wished he were anywhere but on the debate stage. Romney on the other hand was sharp and aggressive. Nearly everyone called Romney the winner, and his polls began to improve; in fact, a post-debate Pew poll showed Romney with a four-point lead over the president.

But, as with Reagan and Mondale 28 years earlier, the challenger’s momentum after the first debate ended with the second encounter, which was held Oct. 16th at Hofstra University on Long Island. Obama was aggressive and sharp, far more animated than he was during the Denver debate. And while Romney had a good debate as well, he kind of stepped in it when he talked about having “binders full of women” who would fill positions in his administration. That brought endless ridicule. (It also didn’t help when moderator Candy Crowley, egged on by Obama, corrected him on a statement he made.)

To no one’s surprise, Trump’s team has already been making outlandish claims in advance of the debate, insisting that CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash are historically anti-Trump and that Biden will be pumped up with enhancement drugs to make him sound coherent.  No one, by the way, is suggesting that Trump will be sounding coherent.  It’s all part of a strategy that the deck is stacked against him.

Let the spinning begin.

From the mailbag:

I just listened to the latest episode (415) – great job, as always. Especially as I now live in the UK (where we have our own election!), it’s great to still have that US politics connection (I’m still a voter!).  In your debate conversation, I wanted to add something else that wasn’t discussed. Re: the choice for a June debate, I think the Biden campaign wants to change the tone of campaign coverage. Their interest is to ensure it’s “Biden v. Trump” not “how do you feel about Biden?” This early debate is a chance to make the voters see the contrast in choices – these are the candidates, and if you don’t want Trump, then vote Biden. Here’s a reminder about who Trump is and what Biden is doing.  I also think it’s a chance to change the tone on Biden coverage. With the “he’s too old” conventional wisdom, they killed some of that with his State of the Union, but a good/decent debate performance also helps tamper down that political conversation. If he holds his own with Trump – this whole “Biden is in a coma being controlled by puppet strings” has less power with a big event that sees him performing against Trump.  Certainly Democrats are also holding their breath hoping it’s a good performance too! But if Biden “passes” the test, then they’ve accomplished changing the tone of the campaign to what they want it to be and can build on the issues they want instead of fighting against “conventional wisdom” waves of coverage. — Philip Gillfus

Isn’t That Special:  In a June 25th special election in Colorado’s 4th District, Republican Greg Lopez won the seat left vacant by the surprise resignation of Ken Buck (R) on March 22.  And voters in Ohio’s 6th Congressional District chose GOP state Sen. Michael Rulli in a special June 11th election to fill the seat vacated by Bill Johnson (R), who resigned to become president of Youngstown State University.  Once Lopez — who did not seek to hold the seat beyond Buck’s term — is sworn in, the party lineup in the House will be 220 R, 213 D, with two vacancies — in NJ 10, where Donald Payne Jr. (D) died on 4/24; and WI 08, where Mike Gallagher (R) resigned 4/25.

June 25 House Primary Results: 

— in NY’s 16th District, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a leftwing Democrat who has been critical of Israel’s war effort in Gaza, was trounced by George Latimer, the Westchester County Executive who ran as a strong supporter of Israel and was heavily backed by AIPAC. Latimer won a landslide victory by some 19 points in what was the most expensive House primary in history. Bowman is the first member of the AOC-backed “Squad” to be defeated. Four years ago he ousted Eliot Engel, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Cmte.
— in CO’s 4th CD, Rep. Lauren Boebert, who decided to switch districts this year after having almost lost in 2022, easily won renomination in the Republican primary over a crowded field. This despite some unwanted headlines about her personal behavior in a public theater last year.
— Rep. John Curtis easily won the GOP primary for the Utah Senate seat being vacated by Mitt Romney. He clobbered Trent Staggs, the mayor of Riverton, who was endorsed by Donald Trump.
— Also in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox (R), who has been a leading critic of Trump, won renomination over Phil Lyman, a pro-Trump state rep. who had the endorsement of the state GOP.
— in SC 03, Sheri Biggs won the GOP runoff for the seat of retiring Rep. Jeff Duncan (R), defeating Mark Burns, who was backed by Trump.
— in CO 05, where Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) is retiring, commentator Jeff Crank won a landslide victory over Trump-backed Dave Williams, the chairman of the state GOP.


Aileen Towards Trump:  The actions taken by U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in the Florida case involving national security documents that Trump took with him when he left the White House have been described as prejudicial towards Trump’s case, as she has ruled in favor of everything the Trump team has asked regarding motions that would benefit him, including delaying the trial and making sure it would not start before the election.  She was nominated by Trump in 2020 and confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 56-21 on November 12, 2020, nine days after Trump was defeated for re-election by Joe Biden.  Here are the Democrats who either voted to confirm her or who failed to vote:

VOTING TO CONFIRM (12):  Carper (DE), Coons (DE), Cortez Masto (NV), Feinstein (CA), Hassan (NH), Jones (AL), Kaine (VA), Leahy (VT), Manchin (WV). Murphy (CT), Rosen (NV), Warner (VA).

FAILED TO VOTE (14):  Blumenthal (CT), Cantwell (WA), Durbin (IL), Harris (CA), Heinrich (NM), Menendez (NJ), Murray (WA), Sanders (I-VT), Schatz (HI), Shaheen (NH), Sinema (now I-AZ), Stabenow (MI), Tester (MT), Whitehouse (RI).

Next live radio program:  June 27th, WOSU’s “All Sides with Anna Staver,” a full hour from 10-11am Eastern.

LATEST PODCAST:  “The Debate — Cui Bono?” (Episode #415), June 20.


June 27 — First presidential debate between President Biden and former President Trump, CNN, Atlanta.

July 11 — Sentencing of Donald Trump.

July 15-18 — Republican National Convention, Milwaukee.

July 30 — Arizona primary.

August 1 — Tennessee primary.

August 6 — Primaries in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

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This Day In Political History:  President Reagan gets a stunning victory in Congress, as the Democratic-led House votes 217-211 for Reagan’s package of budget cuts, dubbed “Gramm Latta II.”  Twenty-nine conservative Democrats crossed over to support Reagan; during a budget resolution the day before, 63 Democrats bolted from their party.  The votes were seen as a humiliating rejection of House Speaker Tip O’Neill (June 26, 1981).

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