The debate night contrast Biden hopes will win the 2024 election

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  — 

The Almighty won’t be standing on stage alongside Joe Biden on Thursday night. But Donald Trump will.

Biden’s team is seizing on the most critical presidential debate in years to spell out a contrast on character and policy that it believes will decide the 2024 election, if only voters will finally perceive it.

It’s the embodiment of one of Biden’s own, rather defensive jokes — the idea that he doesn’t need to be universally popular, just more acceptable than the other guy, who, happily for him, happens to be the most extreme ex-president of modern times. “My dad used to say, ‘Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’” the president has said for years at rallies. The argument is a safety net for a president with the kind of low approval ratings that would normally condemn him to a single term and who has struggled to sell his achievements to voters.

Biden’s team is setting up Trump as an “unhinged” and criminal agent of vengeance unfit for a return to the presidency who will only look after himself, rich friends, and anti-abortion zealots. Biden is reflected in this conceit as a bulwark of stability and a guardian of the country’s democratic values who is tirelessly striving to improve workers’ lives.

Biden’s campaign laid the groundwork for the Atlanta showdown hosted by CNN in a weekend memo. “Thursday’s debate will be one of the first moments in this presidential campaign where a larger slice of the American electorate will have the opportunity to witness the stark choice between Joe Biden, who is fighting for the American people and Donald Trump who is fighting for himself as a convicted felon with an unhinged campaign of regency and retribution,” Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler wrote. Campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu highlighted the contrast on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “The American people have to think about the wisdom, the character, and the judgment of the person that they’re going to appoint to lead America not only at home but also to the rest of the world.”

And CNN’s Kayla Tausche reported Tuesday that several top Democrats outside the White House want Biden to stop trying to claim credit for his achievements — including roaring jobs growth and a strong legislative record — and to go after Trump directly. “He wants the credit, but it’s not working,” one top Democrat, who had shared concerns with the campaign, said.

How the 2024 election is different

It’s not unusual for an incumbent to try to savage an opponent’s character and credentials to bolster a tough reelection bid. In 2004, President George W. Bush’s team slandered Democrat John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism to portray him as too weak to lead the war on terror. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign presented Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a rich and callous corporate shark with an empty soul who relished sacking workers.

Both of those attacks worked. But this is not a conventional campaign and Trump is not a conventional candidate. Democrats have been frustrated that the ex-president’s return to the political spotlight and his romp to the GOP nomination have not already cemented the comparison and rendered him politically unacceptable. And the idea that voters will finally connect the dots depends on the premise that most Americans, unlike political obsessives in the campaigns and media industries, don’t think about politics and presidential elections most of the time. They just need a nudge to remind them of how things used to be, the thinking goes.

If Trump rants and vents his 2020 election lies on Thursday, he will play into Biden’s hands. But while the television audience will be vast, the idea that there will be a moment of national realization about Trump’s perceived threat seems more suited to the age of Cronkite than the age of TikTok.

Biden, whom many voters believe is too old to serve a second term that would end when he is 86, is also under pressure to create a vision for the future for a weary electorate tired of high prices. He must therefore project certainty, stamina and authority on his own behalf to make the comparison work.

But there is a deeper issue about the president’s approach. Can it really be true that, eight years after Trump won the White House and three years after his turbulent presidency ended in violence, voters don’t fully understand who Trump is? His dominance of media coverage makes it seem like he never went away. And voters would have to be hugely disengaged to not know that he’s a recently convicted felon, was impeached twice, refused to accept defeat in 2020, called a crowd to Washington, DC, and told followers to “fight like hell” before they beat up police officers and invaded the US Capitol. Trump has lost a massive civil fraud trial, been found liable for sexual assault in a defamation case and mused during the pandemic about using disinfectant to treat Covid-19 inside the body. He spent weeks at his recent hush money trial in New York attacking judges, witnesses, the legal system and vowing to use the presidency as a vehicle of personal and political revenge if he wins a second term.

But he’s still locked in a neck-and-neck race with Biden and has been leading in many of the critical swing states that pave the way to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Biden and his fellow Democrats might see Trump as unacceptable. But he’s not to millions of voters.

The tied race reflects a nation split in two, politically and culturally, and is a commentary on Biden’s unpopularity. And it reflects one of the most unusual aspects of this election. There are two presidents, both with a one-term record, competing for the White House. Voters don’t really need to question how Trump would behave as president — they’ve already seen it, even if a second term for the 45th president already looks like it would be more extreme and volatile than the first.

How Trump could seek to frustrate Biden’s strategy

Assuming the Biden campaign sticks to this contrast strategy, Trump could thwart it by putting on a show of temperance and arriving with a list of plans to impress voters worried about their personal finances.

There were isolated occasions during Trump’s presidency when he met expectations of decorum. Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s 2004 reelection victory, wrote in his Wall Street Journal column last week that “Mr. Trump can’t come off as unhinged or enraged. The words ‘rigged election’ shouldn’t pass his lips. He has to keep his cool and can’t make it all about himself.” That’s shrewd advice but Trump almost never behaves that way.

Some of the former president’s supporters have been transmitting advice on TV. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, for instance, said on NBC over the weekend that the debate would be a “great opportunity for President Trump to talk about … how his policies when he served as president of this country were good for every single family that lived here. They had more money in their pockets. The grocery prices were down. Gas prices were down.” She added: “I don’t think that he has to get personal in this debate at all.”

The former president has taken part in multiple policy sessions with supporters despite his disdain for formal debate practice. But the script often gets tossed out when he goes live.

The unusual circumstances of Thursday’s debate could work in Trump’s favor. Microphones will be muted to ensure both candidates can use their time without interruptions. That could avoid the mayhem of the first Trump v. Biden debate in 2020. The then-president’s feverish demeanor was partly explained days later when he was rushed to hospital with a serious case of Covid-19. But Biden’s admonition, “Shut up, man!” gave voice to voters tired of four years of Trumpian cacophony. In another break from previous years, there will be no live audience for the debate inside a CNN studio in Atlanta. Often, Trump’s most extreme rhetoric erupts when he works a crowd and doubles down on comments that get a strong reaction.

Still, the encounter will mark the ex-president’s reacquaintance with an opponent he blames for what he falsely claims is a campaign of persecution that threatens his fortune and his liberty. And Trump hasn’t exactly been strategic ahead of the debate. His campaign has spent days trying to roll back his expectations of Biden as a doddering, elderly president who can’t string two words together. Now, his team is insisting Biden will be “jacked up” on drugs.

After months of suggesting Biden is too senile to serve, the Trump campaign’s strategy now seems illogical as it paints a picture of a supreme debater who, by implication, would seem to be of presidential timber. Trump senior advisor Jason Miller, for instance, said on Tuesday, “We know that when it comes to the big events, when it comes to debates, when it comes to State of the Union, things of that nature, that they’re going to have Joe Biden completely super soldiered up.” Miller added: “He is going to be ready to go. He has a certain muscle memory that kicks in for having done this for 50 years.”

Democrats will be hoping that’s true and that he can live up to the contrast with his rival staked out by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren during a two-day swing through battleground Wisconsin. Biden, she said, is “a good and decent man who will protect freedom for women across this country and who is fighting to lower costs for working families.”

Warren added, “Let Donald Trump be Donald Trump, the guy who panders to an extremist base and who has said to his rich as hell donors that if they’ll just put more money into his campaign, he’ll give them giant tax cuts and cut back regulations on climate.”

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