Calmes: Is this going to be the most performative presidential debate ever?

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, left, speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 9, 2024, and President Joe Biden speaks at White House in Washington, June 4, 2024. Biden won the Democratic caucuses in Guam and the Virgin Islands on Saturday, June 8, the final two contests of a 2024 primary calendar that has set the stage for a historic general election rematch against Trump. Biden and Trump have largely pivoted to the general election, despite the persistent protest votes they faced in later contests. (AP Photo)
The still-not-formally nominated presidential candidates will nevertheless meet for an early debate on Thursday. (Associated Press)

The first debate between President Biden and former President Trump on Thursday night will be a real test of Americans’ sense of civic duty. I essentially get paid to watch; political journalism is my job. But given the sort of cringey schoolyard ruckus that Trump provoked between the two men in their initial encounter four years ago, it’s a fair question why anyone else would tune in.

Except out of dedication to good citizenship.

So here we go again, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s memorable riposte to then-President Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate. Don’t expect edification, not when Trump is involved, but hope for some anyway.

About 73 million viewers tuned in for the Biden-Trump melee in September 2020 — not for the entire 90 minutes, I’m confident — and additional viewers livestreamed the spectacle. For perspective, that compares to about 160 million registered voters. The audience was smaller than anticipated, down from the record-high 84 million who watched Trump’s first face-off with Hillary Clinton in 2016, and down as well from the number who viewed the Carter-Reagan debate 40 years earlier.

Nonetheless, as my colleague Stephen Battaglio recently wrote, presidential debates are “one of the last mass audience experiences left in a highly fragmented TV landscape.” Six of 10 U.S. adults said they would watch all or most of Thursday’s showdown, and nearly a quarter said they would closely follow the news coverage about it, according to a PBS News/NPR/Marist poll this month. Good for them. In our polarized nation, a presidential debate is a rare communal experience, if far less enjoyable than a Super Bowl.

Read more: Opinion: Why next week's Biden-Trump faceoff is so novel — and what it means for future presidential debates

Just as with the NFL championship, most viewers will head into the presidential debate cheering for one contender or the other, and nothing about the show in Atlanta — no lie or imbecility from Trump, no gaffe or stumble from Biden — will dissuade them from their man’s team. That makes the candidates’ target audience the few persuadable voters. The ones who actually will go to the trouble of watching the virtually unwatchable in the hope that it will help them make up their minds.

Just about everyone, however, will be united in their focus: How do both men look, sound and perform? Biden and Trump are the oldest people ever to serve as president, and each has been credibly criticized as too old to do it again.

As Republican pollster Whit Ayres put it to PBS News, “Can Joe Biden not look like a senile old man? Can Donald Trump not be an obnoxious jerk?”

Read more: Nonstop attacks about Trump, Biden's mental acuity loom over the first presidential debate

The answer to the first question is yes, Biden can, as evidenced by his impressive performance recently at Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-day, and months earlier in his feisty State of the Union address. He desperately needs to look and sound presidential again, for a much larger audience of voters who are, by definition, politically engaged. But he also needs that feistiness — not to give as good as he gets from Trump (who would want that?), but to sparingly and strategically counterpunch in ways that underscore Trump’s inanity. For example, Biden’s zinger in 2020: “Will you shut up, man?” He spoke for so many millions of us that night.

The answer to the second question is no, Trump can’t be anything but obnoxious. For his own electoral sake, however, he really must try. CNN’s debate rules lend him a hand: Given Trump’s penchant for the kind of nonstop interruptions and insults that all but wrecked the 2020 debate, CNN will cut off both candidates’ mics when it’s not their time to speak. And there will be no studio audience for the performative Trump to play to.

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Perhaps that’s why he’s started calling it a “Fake Debate.” The rest of us can hope it’s more like the real thing, with fewer theatrics, lies and butting-in — a matchup that a high school debate coach might recognize.

Except for this: The extent to which viewers' emphasis will be on the two candidates' style over substance will be all but unprecedented in the history of presidential debates — especially the 64 years that they’ve been televised. (Would-be spoiler Robert F. Kennedy Jr., fortunately, failed to make the cut for the CNN-sponsored debate; the conspiracist hasn’t yet qualified for enough states’ ballots.)

Emphasizing style over substance is perhaps inevitable, and even important, when such old men are seeking reelection as leaders of the free world. But it’s not a good thing at a time when so many issues troubling the nation demand substantive policy responses.

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Take the existential threat of climate change. As Biden and Trump prep for debate, much of the nation is enduring deadly record-high heat, along with the wildfires and intense storms that have become commonplace on our warming globe. Biden is implementing the most ambitious clean-energy agenda ever, and Trump has sworn he'll repeal it. That dichotomy deserves probing questions from the CNN moderators, and our attention to the answers.

And what about the continued threats to reproductive rights in the wake of the Dobbs decision that Trump’s justices on the Supreme Court made possible? The debate will come three days after that ruling’s second anniversary. Or the unsustainable growth of the national debt, to which both Biden and Trump contributed? Or the ongoing chaos in the nation’s immigration system, which was a big problem on Trump’s watch, too, despite his false revisionism about how well-controlled the southern border was then.

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The candidates are likely to respond with more heat than light, especially the policy-phobic Trump. Yet his advisors’ Project 2025 plan is chock full of radical, detailed policies for gutting the civil service, repealing environmental laws, enforcing mass deportations that would rock the economy and defunding or closing whole government departments, should he regain the office. Trump must be forced to answer for those dangerous ideas — by the moderators, Biden or both.

If everyone who says they’ll pay attention does so, Americans will have passed the civic duty test. We can hope the candidates will pass theirs, delivering more than gaffes and groans. Alas, there’s nothing in Trump’s sorry rhetorical record to suggest he will rise to the occasion. Yet that, too, would be informative. Stay tuned.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.