Sometimes, the rhymes of history reveal even greater dissonances. Thursday’s face-off between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will echo their earlier presidential debates in the fall of 2020, but in a radically different context—and with major changes in format. That makes this debate unprecedented in many ways.

Usually, presidential debates happen in the closing weeks of the general election campaign. They’re a chance to drive voter interest and give the electorate a last set of impressions about the candidates before Election Day. As these debates are saturation-level media events, polling shifts in their aftermath carry high electoral stakes.

Taking place more than four months before the election, this debate is less a final exclamation point to conclude a frantic campaign than a prelude to the general election. It will soon be followed by the conventions of both major political parties, giving the campaigns a chance to reset the race.

There is thus another structural context in which to view this strangely timed matchup. In a way, it serves the purposes of both Biden and Trump by reinforcing the “binary choice” narrative that is a core premise for their campaigns. By setting the stage for a clash between both men early, the debate denies oxygen to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s independent candidacy. For months now, Biden’s less-than-ideal polling has provoked grumbling within the Democratic coalition, including suggestions that he end his reelection bid. The debate offers Biden an opportunity to rally his party and convince worried Democrats that, yes, he really will be the standard-bearer in November.

Unlike most such events in many Americans’ living memory, this one is not sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan body established in 1987. Instead, it will occur under the auspices of CNN and feature some significant changes. As a testament to the increasing rancor of American political culture, the microphone for each candidate will go on only when it is his turn to speak: no more of the crosstalk and interruptions that characterized the Biden-Trump slugfests of 2020. The 90-minute debate will lack opening statements, and it will take place before an empty studio—no audience.

How the new format plays out remains to be seen. Muting the mic might deny Trump the opportunity for the out-of-turn zingers (“you’d be in jail”) that went viral in 2016 and 2020. A muted mic could also make him seem more restrained—and help him with undecided voters, who worry about Trump’s temperament.

Biden and Trump have different objectives. While presidential elections are often viewed as a referendum on the incumbent, 2024 is different. Both men have served as president, and Biden will likely try to keep the focus on Trump, perhaps especially his ongoing legal controversies and his challenge to the 2020 election. Biden allies have indicated that they intend to keep stressing the “democracy in crisis” narrative, and the debate could offer a chance to promote that theme. While Biden needs to show that he has the endurance to continue serving as president, Trump faces dangers if he indulges in the smashmouth politics that thrill his political base but turn off swing voters—especially if he is baited into focusing on the 2020 election. Kitchen-table issues, not political vengeance, are more likely to be of interest to working-class Americans. Polling indicates considerable public dissatisfaction with the economy and the chaos at the border. Many Republicans hope that Trump will emphasize those issues in Thursday’s debate.

The 2020 Trump–Biden debates at times degenerated into a fusillade of insults. The dominance of personal vitriol in American politics has itself served as a reminder of the dissatisfactions of wrath. On Thursday, we’ll learn whether this new format can channel mutual animosity into a more constructive contest.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


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