Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in their final...

Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in their final presidential debate in 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: The Washington Post/Jabin Botsford

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump” and is host of the podcast Jen Rubin's "Green Room."

President Biden took the media and political world by surprise in challenging Donald Trump to two debates — and then swiftly accepting offers from CNN and ABC. Trump accepted the debates, on June 27 and Sept. 10, but whether he will show up is another matter.

Trump has done Biden a favor over the past few months by painting the president as an infirm, doddering old man. If Biden appears even remotely sane, alert and engaged at the debates, he will have defied expectations. Moreover, Biden already accomplished an important component of a successful debate. In getting out in front to reach quick agreements with CNN and ABC, the president might have snagged, for the CNN-hosted June 27 debate in Atlanta, two of the most competent moderators available.

Jake Tapper and Dana Bash have been blunt in calling out Trump’s lies and grilling Republicans about Trump’s 2022 sit-down with a racist Holocaust denier, Trump’s bigoted language and his derogatory comments about Jews. They are more than capable of pinning Trump down. (Unfortunately, for moderating the Sept. 10 debate, ABC News did not select George Stephanopoulos, who has distinguished himself for blunt talk about Trump’s abnormal behavior. The designated moderators, David Muir and Linsey Davis, without general election debate experience, will need to be on their toes.)

Biden’s challenge is threefold: Expose Trump’s unfitness, reassure Americans that he can continue to lead the country and remind voters of the horrors of the Trump presidency.

Exposing Trump

Exposing Trump’s defects won’t be hard since he can rarely go for more than a few minutes before sounding unhinged. Trump was angry, rude and argumentative in the first debate with Biden in 2020; judging from his rallies and social media rants this year, there is every reason to think Trump’s self-control has deteriorated further.

“I don’t think he’s capable of sustaining 90 minutes of unstructured conversation at night under stress without slipping,” psychologist John Gartner, who studies malignant narcissism and co-hosts the “Shrinking Trump” podcast, tells me about the debates. “When he does, Biden should pounce on it and shine a light on Trump’s thought disorder in real time.” He suggests that Biden be super-aggressive and call out his opponent’s more disturbing statements (e.g., saying of Trump, “What kind of person runs for president to threaten revenge?”)

Others, such as lawyer and prominent Trump critic George Conway, argue that the way to disarm Trump is to “treat him like the nut job he actually is,” but “do it with humor.” Indeed, Biden has taken to regularly mocking Trump, calling him a “loser” and even suggesting Trump is “sick.” (“I hear you’re free on Wednesdays,” he said in his video debate challenge, referring to the courtroom schedule in Trump’s trial in New York.)

Whatever tone Biden deploys, over the course of a long debate, he likely will get multiple opportunities to pounce. If Trump blathers on about Hannibal Lecter, whales killed by wind turbines, the “rigged” 2020 election or the “corrupt” judges and prosecutors who torment him, Biden can call out Trump’s nuttery. (“That’s bonkers, man. Did everyone hear how crazy he sounds?”)

In a more serious vein, Biden should not be shy about denouncing Trump’s promise to be a “dictator for a day” or his conceit that he can suspend the Constitution. The president can also pressure Trump to denounce white nationalists, something he refused to do in 2020. And Biden can accuse Trump of being “weak on the border” (given his urging Republicans to kill a tough bipartisan border bill earlier this year). Such gibes might spark a Trump meltdown.

In sum, Trump tends to erupt when attacked and seems to show no self-awareness when he sounds daft. Gartner’s “Shrinking Trump” co-host, Harry Segal, a senior lecturer in psychology at Cornell University, tells me, “Biden needs to remember that the more Trump feels attacked, the more angry he gets.” And “when Trump gets angry, his speech becomes tangential, disorganized and sometimes hard to follow.” No wonder Biden is eager to debate him.

Showing Biden is up to governing modern America

To reassure Americans that he is up to a second term, Biden must present himself calmly, offer policy details, explain the basics of his economic approach (build up the middle class) and define his foreign policy vision. (His successful interview last year with John Harwood did just that.) He can tout his whirlwind trips to Israel and Ukraine (making clear Trump never managed anything like that) and his vigorous campaign schedule. (By contrast, Trump does not even use his off-days from the courtroom to campaign consistently.)

Moreover, the June debate, coming three days after the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning Roe v. Wade can be a perfect forum for Biden to show he understands the plight of women who no longer are guaranteed full control over their bodies or access to abortion medication or timely emergency care for a miscarriages. Biden can affirm that he understands 21st-century Americans; Trump seems to think women belong back in the 19th century. (As Biden puts it, the real age problem is that Trump’s ideas are old.)

Of course you’re better off!

Lastly, Biden can take viewers back four years to recount the weekly COVID-19 death toll, and data about unemployment and energy production. Stressing that his numbers are better than Trump’s is one surefire way to unnerve Trump. Moreover, in revisiting the past, Biden should not forget to highlight Trump’s daily, bizarro news conferences, or his groveling before dictators and personal attacks on individual Americans.

Now, Trump might never show up for one or both debates. “I honestly believe Trump won’t debate because he can’t, and he knows it,” Gartner says. “Just like he wants to testify, and wanted to release his tax returns, but ‘they’ won’t let him, he’ll announce the debates are rigged, make some impossible demand, and go to a rally — his safe space — instead.” Perhaps. But if Trump does show, Gartner says, “Biden has a huge opportunity, if he has the killer instinct to take full advantage of it.”

This might be the rare election cycle in which a presidential debate can significantly affect the race. Voters’ memories of Trump’s tumultuous tenure have faded. Biden should be all too happy to bait Trump into acting like Trump and remind voters why they don’t want to give Trump four more years.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump” and is host of the podcast Jen Rubin's "Green Room."

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