John Krull: Biden and Trump do the debate dance again


It appears Donald Trump will get the debates with President Joe Biden the much-indicted former president begged for.

As the cliche goes, Trump should be careful what he wishes for. The debates may not go the way he hopes.

The first debate will be in Atlanta — perhaps the swingiest of the swing states — on June 27. CNN will air the debate with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash moderating. CNN says its debate will not be before a live audience.

The second will be on Sept. 10 at a location yet to be determined. ABC will host with Linsey Davis and David Muir moderating. (Disclosure: Davis teaches with me at Franklin College.) Not much is known about the format.

Trump already has complained about CNN’s decision not to have an on-site audience. He’s also said he wants still more debates.

The fact that Trump’s so hooked on his base’s applause is one reason he never has won the popular vote in an election. Presumably, he already has the votes of those wearing red Make America Great Again hats. What he needs to win are the votes of undecided Americans.

CNN’s format allows the moderators to move the concerns of those voters to the forefront and limits the opportunities for either candidate to play only to his base. It wouldn’t surprise me if ABC also tries a format that targets Americans who still need to make up their minds.

If done right, these debate formats will put pressure on the candidates to demonstrate that they will be a president for all the people, not just those who cheer and vote for them.

Trump’s call for more debates is also predictable.

He’s not a man much connected to reality. He’s convinced he will wipe the floor with Biden.

An honest appraisal of the record does not support his assessment — Biden beat him in both 2020 debates.

In the first one, when Trump came out interrupting and caterwauling like an over-tired toddler who’d been fed way too much sugar, Biden delivered the most memorable, if unplanned sound bite when he referred to Trump as a “clown.”

More important, Biden demonstrated he would stand his ground when someone tries to bully him. Given that bullying is Trump’s go-to response under pressure, when someone refuses to be bullied, the former president just looks flummoxed and out of control.

In the second debate, which — like CNN’s proposed format this year — did not have a studio audience, Trump did better, but Biden still dissected the many Trump contradictions and absurdities.

The debates put Biden on his way to the White House because they made clear to the suburban and mostly female voters in America’s suburbs who decided the election that while they might disagree with the Democratic candidate on taxes and other issues, they could count on him to be a sane and steady presence in the White House.

That was enough.

But one shouldn’t write off Biden’s debate victories in 2020 as simply the product of Trump’s weakness.

Biden also bested Paul Ryan in the 2012 vice presidential debate. He tore into the Republican ticket’s policy proposals and turned the tide after then-President Barack Obama’s weak performance in the first presidential debate that year.

Four years earlier, most observers expected Biden to have trouble with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who had a star power and populist appeal that anticipated Trump’s.

But Biden managed to connect better with everyday Americans than Palin did. He showed he understood the pressures of their lives in ways she didn’t. He also, gracefully, revealed her on the national stage to be the neophyte that she was.

In many ways, Biden’s strong record as a debater is a puzzle.

He’s not a great — or even good — public speaker. No president in my lifetime has been less effective as an orator. Even Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — both of whom served as cures for insomnia — were better at moving crowds than Biden is.

But the man does his homework. And Trump doesn’t.

That’s why Trump may regret getting what he asked for.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students, where this commentary originally appeared. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College.