Composite of Donald Trump and Joe Biden at their October...

Composite of Donald Trump and Joe Biden at their October 2020 debate in Nashville. MUST CREDIT: Composite of two photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post.

The debate scheduled for Thursday between President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump is unique in several ways — much like the race itself.

That’s mostly Trump’s doing. In April, the Republican National Committee, now a closely-controlled Trump enterprise, refused to work with the scrupulously nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, founded in 1987.

This first face-to-face “rematch” confrontation between the oldest nominees-to-be of our time — 81-year-old Biden and 78-year-old Trump — is happening because both candidates accepted CNN’s invitation to take part in a 90-minute debate at its Atlanta studios. GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Trump fugleman, claimed “CNN is going to rig it as much as possible” for Biden. That’s just the Trump camp’s predictable effort at working the referees.

Trump should try to explain why he should not have been convicted in Manhattan of falsifying business records in the hush money trial. He should also explain his attempt to undo the last election through lies and treachery.

But since Biden is the incumbent, and his news conferences are infrequent, he, too, must answer uncomfortable queries on Thursday. One will no doubt be about the current disorder at the border. Biden should also be asked why he thinks his foreign policy is right for the U.S. in a time of war in the Mideast and Eastern Europe.

Fortunately, this time, there will be no studio audience to hoot and holler. Moderators will be able to cut off either candidate’s microphone when decorum or timing calls for it. What’s more unusual, this debate is taking place more than four months before the Nov. 5 election. Neither candidate has been formally nominated. Nor have their running mates. We don’t even know Trump’s pick for vice president. Policy platforms have yet to be drafted and adopted at the summer conventions.

For voters watching at home, how useful does the event promise to be? In this day and age, with both candidates’ degree of popularity confined mostly to members of their own party, small out-of-context video and audio clips from the debate are expected to become propaganda memes on the internet. But hopefully, if the moderators are masterful enough, cheap shots won’t be all that result. While we can’t expect the candidates to plunge at length into the fiscal intricacies of the child care tax credit, we can still wish for straight answers to direct questions that give some hint of who’s more prepared to actually govern. If they dodge, there’s a reason.

Beyond the inevitable armchair psychology and horse-race handicapping, we should try to stay earnest enough to pick up new clues regarding which candidate seems better disposed to address American problems involving liberty, the economy, and the environment.

The second term of any president is never identical to the first. Challenges change with time. Hopefully, this debate will educate us as to what to expect from either candidate if elected again.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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