Finally American media outlets had something big to report: that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump actually concurred on something! The two have agreed to debate much ahead of the traditional election time frame. The first will be hosted by CNN on June 27 followed by ABC on September 10. And for someone who is seen as an institutionalist, President Biden was the first to propose the idea but minus the involvement of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) which has been running the show since 1988.

The Biden initiative, pushed through reporters of two media outlets covering the Trump campaign, saw CNN agreeing to hold a debate on June 27 which prompted the President to post on X: “Over to you, Donald. As you said: anywhere, anytime, any place”. According to the new format, the two debates will take place in a studio with a moderator and no live audiences. One grouse of the Biden team has been that the CPD was either “unable or unwilling” to enforce rules during the 2020 debates that included the inability or helplessness of the moderators to cut off rambling discourses or rein in the boisterous crowd, especially in town hall settings. Reluctantly the Trump campaign had to agree to the new ground rules but the former President did say in his Truth Social post that he would rather see “more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue”.

Reason for change

In its letter to the Commission the Biden campaign had apparently made the point that debates in late Fall take place when early voting is already in progress, and that the existing model was geared more towards “huge spectacles” instead of “good debates”. Not all have forgotten Biden’s angry retort to constant interruptions from President Trump in Cleveland on September 29, 2020: “Will you shut up, man.”

What has raised eyebrows is that the present format leaves out college campuses the CPD had been having in mind — in Utah, Virginia and Texas — and in the impact this could have on President Biden keeping the young college-going kids on his side. Granted that the rumblings in educational institutions from California to New York and beyond on the goings-on in the Gaza may have dented this support group, one of Biden’s strong base of support comes from college goers.

The campaigns may insist otherwise, but both Biden and Trump have good reasons to have offered and accepted early debates. Both realise that this is going to be one of those tight races with prospects of a re-run of 2020 written all over it. Nationally, Biden and Trump are dead-even in polls, but the 45th President has a slim lead over the incumbent in most of the six battleground states with perhaps the exception of Wisconsin. And much as Trump loudly claims that he is being kept away from the campaign trail by “politically fixed” court trials in Manhattan, he would rather debate President Biden on domestic issues.

Biden and Trump would seem to have a common objective as well: keeping Robert Kennedy Jr off the track. The last word on who Kennedy Jr will hurt more is yet to be said, but it is a known fact that since 1980 third party candidates have had an impact on Presidential races. And what is a better way of keeping Kennedy Jr away from the debate format when he is yet to have his name on the ballot in all states? Kennedy Jr is obviously crying foul.

It is a long way to go to June 27. The first showdown in the CNN studios at Atlanta might not even take place. But the million dollar question has been posed to former President Trump during the last Presidential election and during the course of this election season: will you accept the result? The response in 2020 was quite chilling: “This is not going to end well. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen”. Any guess on what the formal stance will be in 2024?

The writer is a senior journalist who has reported from Washington DC on North America and United Nations.