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Biden steals debate issue from Trump campaign, makes it his own

In this combination photo, U.S. President Joe Biden speaks May 2, 2024, in Wilmington, N.C., left, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, May 1, 2024, in Waukesha, Wis. (AP Photo) In this combination photo, U.S. President Joe Biden speaks May 2, 2024, in Wilmington, N.C., left, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, May 1, 2024, in Waukesha, Wis. (AP Photo)
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The presidential debates are set. Donald Trump had spent weeks needling U.S. President Joe Biden for his refusal to commit to the quadrennial ritual, and in one fell swoop, the president ingeniously stole the issue from the Trump campaign and made it his own.

Biden used his leverage of incumbency to set the timeline, tone and tenor for the two face-to-face matchups between the rival politicians. Also, in snatching the narrative from Trump, something almost impossible to do, Biden bullied the ex-president into accepting terms that offer no upside to the Trump team.

Now, with six weeks until D-(ebate) Day, the mercurial ex-president is desperately attempting to flip the script.

“Sleepy Joe” stunned the political landscape with the unexpected release of a video calling for debates with the presumptive Republican nominee. Mocking and ridiculing the former reality television star for his ongoing criminal trial in Manhattan, Biden’s bravado and truculence came across as uncharacteristically Trumpian.

Nevertheless, stealing the spotlight and orchestrating such a bold move was a stroke of political genius. The announcement came on the day the Trump hush money trial was not in session so as not to compete for air time with the ex-president. Unwilling to settle for just seizing the news story of the day, the Biden campaign also struck a powerful blow at presidential debate tradition which has held for nearly four decades. Cutting out the Commission on Presidential Debates entirely and giving the networks a take-it-or-leave it deal, it was President Biden, not Donald Trump, exercising ultimate control.

Upon successfully neutering the nonpartisan organization tasked with overseeing presidential debates, the Biden campaign proceeded to completely politically emasculate Trump as well. The Biden team insisted on no live audience and muted microphones. This strips the former president of his uncanny ability to create a spectacle.

Now, without the chance to talk over his democratic rival as he successfully did during the 2020 debates or play to a crowd of MAGA sycophants, Trump will be rendered politically impotent without the ability to turn the event into a farcical circus. Moreover, by outright rejecting Commission debates for failing to enforce its own rules four years ago, the Biden campaign sends a strong message to the host networks, ABC and CNN, to comply, or else.

A podium was placed on stage saying former U.S. President Donald Trump will debate President Joe Biden anytime, anywhere or anyplace before Trump was slated to speak at a rally in Wilmington, N.C., April 20, 2024 (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Not just the networks, the Biden campaign has now backed the GOP nominee into a political corner. Aside from rules that cater to Biden and neuter Trump, should the jury in the Manhattan hush money trial render a guilty verdict in the weeks prior to the first debate, the ex-president could be entering the event significantly diminished politically.

A guilty verdict would bring with it the weight and stigma of convicted criminal which might be too much baggage even for Trump. Poll after poll has consistently shown voters hesitant to support the real estate mogul if convicted on any of the federal or state charges facing him. Surely, this went into the calculation when the Biden team plotted and executed their strategy to debate the marketing maestro. And now, it is the master marketer that is crying foul.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan criminal court on May 21, 2024, in New York (Mark Peterson / Pool Photo via AP)

Trump is now calling for additional debates to take place. Not stopping there, he is also making cartoonish demands that Biden be drug-tested prior to the debates. Clearly, the ex-president recognizes the roles have reversed as he is on the outside looking in. Now, the former real estate mogul is making futile attempts to change the parameters.

For the first time in years, the presidential debates will take on an entirely new meaning. Stripped of the element of spectacle and no longer made-for-television entertainment, the debates could provide the clearest picture to date of each candidate's vision for the future and direction of the nation.

Instead of a food fight with candidates racing to the bottom, the debates of 2024 could see its party leaders engage in a spirited back-and-forth on the plethora of domestic and global challenges facing an anxious electorate.

Large cavernous auditoriums will be replaced with nondescript studios. Removed of the glitz and showmanship, the Biden team seeks seriousness over glam; substance over style. However, the idea that these debates are the catalyst to a return of a halcyon era of staid and dispirited affairs is perhaps too ambitious to accept. Nevertheless, Biden, in his ardent demands, cajoled and prodded all parties involved, especially Trump himself, to debate on his terms.

Inasmuch, the debates could be a dagger through the heart of the Trump campaign. Largely overlooked in the timing of the debates is how it adheres to the Democrats’ advantage over Republicans in early voting. Should Biden do very well, the debates have the opportunity to energize disaffected Democrats as well as crystallize the contrasts between the two candidates. If the former holds, these debates could singularly ignite a surge in early voting on Biden’s behalf, thereby putting the election out of reach for Trump before the first ballots are cast on Nov. 5.

Clearly, Biden is betting big, staking it all on these two debates.

The president’s campaign scripted this latest political move with cunning and guile. His team backed Trump into a corner with no way out and no avenues to retake the narrative. Already, the ex-president is griping and attempting a reset with outlandish demands, but to no avail.

Trump sought to use Biden’s hesitancy to agree to debates as a way of making the president look weak and not up to the job. The president, in Machiavellian fashion, turned the issue against his opponent. And now, it is Trump looking for a way out.

Eric Ham is a best-selling author and former congressional staffer in the U.S. Congress. He served as a contributor to TheHill.com and The Washington Diplomat. He resides in Washington, DC.

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