Washington Wednesday: Same candidates, different rules

Date:

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2024.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: And I’m Lindsay Mast. It’s Washington Wednesday.

Today, Georgia electoral politics in 2024. But first, Donald Trump and Joe Biden plan to debate, again.

AUDIO: [Clip from 2020 debate]

After their raucous debate in 2020, Trump and Biden weren’t expected to clash on stage again.

The Republican National Committee withdrew from the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates back in 2022, citing bias, and President Biden’s campaign said in December that it wouldn’t commit to debates.

REICHARD: But then last week, the Biden campaign released this video…

BIDEN: Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020, but since then he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice.

Trump accepted the Biden campaign’s proposal for two debates, first in June and then in September, hosted by CNN and ABC…without the Commission on Presidential Debates. Trump also agreed to Biden’s terms of doing the debates without live audiences, and moderators that can mute debater’s microphones.

MAST: Trump explained his decision to accept during a campaign rally in Minnesota on Friday.

TRUMP: They’re going to be fair, I think they’re going to be fair. And if they’re not, you know, you have to deal with it, right? You have to deal with it. But I just wanted to accept and, you know, the only one (network) he (Biden) wanted to do it on basically CNN and another one to get to two of them, I guess.

MAST: What does this new approach mean for presidential debates?

Joining us now to talk about it is Mark Weaver. He’s a veteran political consultant and election law attorney in Ohio.

REICHARD: Mark, good morning.

MARK WEAVER: Well, thanks for having me. This is certainly a timely topic.

REICHARD: It is and we’re glad you’re here for it. Well this’ll be the first election cycle since 1988 that the presidential debates won’t be organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Can you give us some background on the commission?

WEAVER: Sure. The Presidential Debate Commission was, you’ll pardon the pun, the gold standard for presidential debates for many years. But as it got clunkier and less willing to negotiate and recognize sort of the new way things are done, it started to make itself less relevant. And then as candidates got pushier, and more willing to demand things that they would not normally demand, the flexibility or the lack thereof of this commission became obvious. And so some people in America might have thought, “Well, this was all Donald Trump’s doing. He’s the one who tosses norms out.” Well, no, this was Joe Biden’s doing. Joe Biden was the one who went around them at least this most recent episode. So I would say that this has been something of a dinosaur that started out powerful, and now perhaps is going extinct.

REICHARD: Okay, that’s useful. Well, let’s talk about venue. Based on CNN and ABC’s past debate moderation, and the rules for the upcoming debates, do you think the moderators will be nonpartisan, without favoring one candidate over the other?

WEAVER: It’s hard for me to think that way. Full disclosure, I’ve been a political consultant for a long time and I always help Republicans. I did a race against Jake Tapper in 1994, he was the press secretary for a Democratic Congressional Campaign, and I was helping on the Republican side. So, but my first exposure to Jake was as a partisan Democrat operative, which there’s nothing wrong with being that, it just identifies what your beliefs are. And I think some of his coverage, certainly his criticisms of Donald Trump, have suggested he’s held true to those far left Democrat views. I’d like to think he has the ability to be fair, but more recent commentators who were chosen to moderate debates had been much more likely to interrupt and attempt to fact check Donald Trump. In some cases, they turned out to be wrong, but they’d been much more likely to intercede with with Donald Trump’s comments than Joe Biden or previously, Hillary Clinton.

REICHARD: Mark, what stands out to you about the rules for these debates that are different from the Commission debates? And I’m thinking in particular about the muting of the mics.

WEAVER: Muting the mics was a not unexpected request for Joe Biden, and some of his people had been talking to reporters on background. And at least one of the Biden strategists acknowledged that this was one of their goals, to shut down the spontaneity of Donald Trump, and his ability to call out Joe Biden when Joe Biden lies. Now, each candidate thinks the other one lies, and each group’s supporters thinks the other candidate is the big liar. But each of them is going to be able to be called out on something they said. This particular tactic, which is an unusual one, given that there’s no audience as well, should play more for Biden, who needs a much more controlled environment.

REICHARD: We know these candidates, they’ve both been president and I doubt there’s anyone still sitting on the fence about either one of them. So, is there anything you expect to see that would make these debates worth watching?

WEAVER: You made a very smart point, which is nearly everyone in the country has figured out what they think about Joe Biden and Donald Trump, which means they’re not a lot of  minds to change. There are people to turn out and this election will be a turnout election. But there are not a lot of people with open minds who are willing to change their perspective on these two candidates. Having said that, we do know anyone who is being honest acknowledges that Joe Biden has some cognitive issues. Sometimes it results in him using the wrong word, calling people wrong names, citing things that didn’t happen. Not many people think that whatever lies or fabrications that Donald Trump are alleged to have made, not many people think that’s because of cognition. His opponents think that he does that on purpose. Biden’s opponents suggest that he is lying on purpose in some instances, and lying because he doesn’t know what he’s saying in other instances. And given that latter concern, I think a lot of people will tune in to see whether or not the wiring in Joe Biden’s head short circuits. I’m being metaphorical, of course, I don’t think he’s really a robot. But we all know what that means when somebody loses their place and has that panic look on their face. And it doesn’t bode well for somebody who wants four more years of leading the greatest superpower on the planet.

REICHARD: Final question here…earlier you said the debates are dinosaurs now. What do you think it would take to make these debates useful again? If you can even call them debates? Or do you think it’s just time to scrap them?

WEAVER: I should have been more clear with my analogy. I think the Debate Commission is the dinosaur that’s going extinct, You could make an argument that debates are becoming less relevant and they could eventually become extinct, but I think the commission itself will go extinct a lot sooner than the presidential debate if for no other reason, we have so few shared moments as a country anymore, where we’re all watching the same thing at the same time. The Super Bowl is one exception to that, presidential debates sometimes are exceptions to that. But more and more people are tuning out of formal campaign events because they see them as scripted or unhelpful, particularly if folks have their own opinion about the candidates already. So it might be that debates will become extinct, but certainly the Presidential Debate Commission will be extinct before long.

REICHARD: Mark Weaver is a political consultant and election law attorney in Ohio. Mark, thanks so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

WEAVER: A delightful interview. Thanks for having me.

MAST: As mentioned, CNN is hosting the first debate at its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27th. Georgia was a key swing state for Biden in the 2020 election, but what does the contest look like this year?

World’s Washington Bureau reporter Carolina Lumetta reports.

CAROLINA LUMETTA: In 2020, Joe Biden took home the first Democratic presidential victory in the state since 1992. But he’ll have to do some heavy lifting to repeat the performance this November.

PETER WIELHOUWER: When I teach this to my students, I classify it as a leaning Republican state.

Peter Wielhouwer teaches political science at Western Michigan University, and he’s not ready to call Georgia a purple state just yet.

WIELHOUWER: So I think that it’s not a slam dunk for the Democrats or for the Republicans, but I think it leans Republican, and I think that that matches the general consensus of other election watchers out there.

Nevertheless, Biden is targeting Georgia. Last week, he gave the commencement address at Morehouse College, a historically black university in Atlanta.

BIDEN: (Applause) Many of you graduates don’t know me, but check my record, you’ll know what I’m saying I mean from my gut. And we know Black men are going to help us, lead us to the future — Black men from this class, in this university. (Applause)

According to a Gallup polling report in February, the Democratic Party’s lead among black Americans has dropped 20 points since 2021.

Wielhouwer says that African American support might not decide this year’s election, but any small erosion of the base hurts the Democratic Party more than the GOP.

Wielhouwer: What we’ve seen in the last few years is, to the Democrats’ great chagrin, is that Donald Trump is in fact making inroads into the Democratic coalition, particularly among non-white voters. So I think that the Democratic party is quite concerned about this, and that it’s something that the Biden campaign is really trying to not take for granted.

Meanwhile, Trump has a mixed history in Georgia. He’ll be returning to the same county in which he has pleaded not guilty to 13 charges of alleged election interference in 2020. Biden won the election by fewer than 12,000 votes, and Trump claims they were fraudulent.

The state does not register voters by party, but the growing shares of politically unaffiliated voters in Georgia and nationwide could present a roadblock for Trump. Here’s Wielhouwer again:

WIELHOUWER: One of the challenges that he had in 2020 is that all of his administration was not geared at all toward building support among the independents. It was all about placating and gearing policies that pleased his base, which is fine, I guess, but it doesn’t help you win reelection. This time, I think that he needs to be trying to find ways to expand.

So far, Trump’s legal team has argued for either tossing out the case or at least removing some of the charges. The longer it takes to rule on pretrial motions, the less likely it is that he will stand trial before November 5th.

As for the June 27th debate, Republican consultant Brittany Martinez says she expects more spectacle than substance.

MARTINEZ: But I think the debates will definitely be illuminating to the public. as far as, you know, Biden’s mental acumen and then also Trump’s ability to stay above the fray if he even can.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Carolina Lumetta.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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