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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    The political fights of the century

    They promise to be more like the Ali-Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ than Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon, but this notion that relatively few people will watch the Trump-Biden debates because they're being held well before the Nov. 5 presidential election is just flat-out wrong. These promise to be the political fights of the century.

    The two political combatants, President Joe Biden and his predecessor (as he likes to call him), Donald Trump have agreed to two debates. Given that both CNN and ABC, which will be televising the debates, will share broadcast privileges with the other networks assures that both events will be watched by tens of millions of people.

    Those who say they're not going to watch at least one, and probably both, debates, are the same people who insist they don't gawk at highway car wrecks. They slow down and stare like everyone else, and in all likelihood, they'll watch the debates, too.

    OK, yes, it's fair to liken the upcoming debates to car wrecks because that's what they're likely to be; maybe even worse. And of the tens of millions who will be watching from both sides and the middle, many of them will be watching more out of morbid curiosity than for political enlightenment.

    There's been lots of discussion — falling largely along party lines — about which candidate got the better end of the debate agreement.

    After being challenged and goaded by Trump for months, Biden delivered on a promise he'd made a couple of weeks earlier on, of all places, the Howard Stern Show and invited — actually dared —Trump to meet him in two debates. Trump, who'd said he'd debate Biden anytime, anyplace —and continues to push for more — had little choice but to accept even though the designated moderators are stacked against him.

    The first debate, in Atlanta, will be televised June 27 on CNN and moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, who share their disdain for Trump on the air just about every day and are usually happy to soft-peddle Biden's gaffes and shortcomings, if they even cover them at all. Inflation, the southern border, rampant antisemitism, Uncle Bosie being eaten by cannibals. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

    The ABC moderators for the Sept. 10 debate aren't quite as anti-Trump as Tapper and Bash or CNN itself, which has seen its ratings plummet in recent years since it abandoned even a pretense of objectivity to embrace the liberal agenda and beat MSNBC in their race to the bottom.

    ABC will air the second debate Sept. 10 and has assigned nightly news anchor David Muir and Linsey Davis, anchor of the weekday streaming program ABC News Live Prime. Neither seems to despise Trump as much as Tapper and Bash — at least not openly — but ABC happily participates in the media's daily anti-Trump pig pile.

    Still, ABC at least had the good sense not to assign political commentator and former Clinton administration press secretary George Stephanopoulos to the debate stage. Stephanopoulos, who co-hosts Good Morning America and ABC's Sunday morning news show, runs neck-and-neck with MSNBC's Chuck Todd as the Democrats' favorite media lapdog.

    Biden's handlers may have scored a coup in not only securing two favorable networks and four favorable moderators, but they blew it when they essentially handed Trump three potential plums.

    First, there'll be no live audience at either debate. Initially, this would seem to hurt Trump, who feeds off raucous crowds. However, by not playing to his audiences' basest performance whims, Trump might actually behave like an adult during the debates — "might" being the operative word here.

    Second, each candidate's microphone will be silenced when he's not speaking. This will muffle, if not eliminate, Trump's persistent interruptions, the kind that cost him the first debate against Biden in 2020. Most objective viewers had to sympathize with Biden when he was interrupted so often by Trump during the first 2020 debate that at one point, exasperated, he said: "Will you shut up, man?" Hardly presidential behavior by either candidate, but by then, the debate had already become a food fight at that point.

    Finally — and both candidates agree on this — the debates will be one-on-one. Neither Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nor any of the lesser-known candidates with no chance of winning the presidency will share the stage and take precious airtime from the two major-party candidates.

    This will favor Trump, too, because it will require a tiring 82-year-old Biden to speak coherently and remain alert longer than at just about any other time during his presidency. He won't have the benefit of his ever-present teleprompter, but don't be surprised if he takes a page from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre's playbook and reads verbatim the talking points that someone else has written. Yes, Trump is old too — he'll turn 78 next month — but in watching the two of them on the campaign trail, it's clear Trump is more alert, has more energy and is more adept at speaking without a script.

    At this writing, Kennedy is pressuring both networks to include him as his poll numbers are running pretty steadily in double digits. And recent polling shows that voters want him included. That shouldn't matter, though. Kennedy has as much chance of winning the presidency as Harold "Never Say Die" Stassen did during any of his nine tries between 1948 and 1988. Still, don't be surprised if one or both of the networks cave in and give Kennedy his 15 minutes of fame.

    Speculating that Biden will be juiced ahead of the debates with vitamins and/or medical stimulants, Trump has called on the president to submit to a drug test before the debates. He claims Biden was "high as a kite" while presenting the 2024 State of the Union address in March. There's a better chance Biden will do back flips on a trampoline on debate night than submitting to a drug test at Trump's behest.

    In the meantime, Trump should stop predicting how one-sided the debates will be in his favor. He has so lowered the bar for his opponent that Biden will need do little more than recite the Pledge of Allegiance on stage to surpass expectations. Of course, if Trump can behave maturely, not call Biden names, limit his exaggerations to, say, 50, and not interrupt constantly, he too could exceed expectations. That's a big "if" though.

    By working directly to carve out debate formats that the two candidates agreed to, both campaigns circumvented the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, whose formats were flawed for the reasons above. Thankfully, there'll be no rowdy partisan crowds, no fringe candidates to take time away from the two real contenders (hopefully), and microphones that will be switched off when it's not a candidate's turn to speak.

    The debates may not draw as many viewers as a Super Bowl, the final ‘M*A*S*H’ episode or the ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ season finale of ‘Dallas.’ However, rest assured, the hype leading up to the debates and the candidates themselves might bring out the worst in terms of national polarization, but it'll be damn good TV.

    Let's get ready to rumble!

    Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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