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BROOKE ROLLINS: Here’s Why Joe Biden Is Risking A Debate With Donald Trump

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Brooke Rollins President and CEO, America First Policy Institute
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Former President Donald Trump has been demanding debates with Joe Biden for years, with President Trump in recent months saying he would debate Biden “ANY TIME! ANYWHERE! ANY PLACE!”.

News that Biden has finally accepted President Trump’s challenge — with the first debate to be held hardly a month from now — should be understood in light of the intersecting imperatives that drive both presidents to it. Each man has ample reason to take the stage with the other. Only one of them, however, is likely to win.

For Biden, the direct challenge to Trump comes in the context of his own rapidly collapsing reelection effort. The general election is still just under half a year away. (RELATED: BOB UNANUE AND JORGE MARTINEZ: Hispanics Are Shaping The New Conservative Majority)

That’s an eternity in political time, so of course nothing is certain. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that this isn’t where the president wanted to be at this point.

If he were drafting his own narrative, he would have had himself with a cleared field, a prohibitive favorite sitting on a comfortable lead into his own party’s convention this summer. But though some of what he would have wished for has come to pass, it is not for reasons that bode well for him.

For example, unlike nearly any other Democratic incumbent in a comparably weak position, he did not draw a significant primary challenger. That isn’t because he was strong, but because he has led his party into an enervated state in which there is no bench of obvious challengers, to say nothing of successors.

A party whose heir apparent is Kamala Harris — evidently incompetent in the office she holds, and, therefore, doubly so to the office of the presidency — is loath to risk her elevation. California Gov. Gavin Newsom mounted his own shadow campaign for several months, but couldn’t generate the momentum necessary to effect a change of nominees.

Biden may be increasingly unable to engage in sustained discourse with the press — not that most members of the press would dream of pointing that out — but he retains sufficient political canniness to grasp that his survival thus far is a function of his weakness, rather than contradictory to it.

He therefore has a need to cover for it and bare his teeth to both his Republican and Democratic rivals. He hopes an early debate with Trump will do the job.

A success for him solidifies the base ahead of its last chance to set him aside — the Democratic National Convention itself — and gives him a badly needed and heretofore missing advantage among the general electorate.

Yet, for all this, the endeavor is high risk for the current president. He may require the aesthetic of victory but the substance at hand is thin.

A president who wishes to pivot from a losing narrative to a winning one typically has the latter in hand. Think Reagan coming off an anemic first-term economy with his narrative of American revival; think Clinton coming off scandal and electoral rebukes with his narrative of a roaring economy.

We know what the negative narratives for Joe Biden are: inflation, war, discord, weakness, crime, and so on. Less obvious is what he pivots to.

The evidence of the past few years is that he tries to shift toward a defense-of-democracy line that presents Trump as a unique civic threat. But that’s well past its sell-by date with the general public.

For all his outsized New Yorker aesthetics, the fact is that Trump’s own first-term outcomes are now not just regarded as generally normal, but actually positive. With nearly every cohort of American society remembering the Trump years as mostly good ones for themselves and their households — especially versus what came after — an argument that America shouldn’t go back to that is a tough one indeed.

Biden knows that his weakness isn’t just communicative, it is also demographic. This, too, is a factor driving him to an early debate, in that he has to make himself visible and forcible with two traditionally Democratic groups that are pulling away from him with exceptional rapidity.

The polling from a variety of sources illuminates his problem, as youth and nonwhites part ways with the Democratic apparatus that has enjoyed their majority support for generations.

Some of them will go to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who threatens Biden from the left. Some of them will simply not vote. Most will probably go to Trump. Those of us who lived through the 2016 campaign up close remember well the media narrative that Trump’s ascendancy was a function of the elderly and white supremacists.

In 2024, it is the young and the nonwhites who just might put him back in the White House.

Joe Biden knows all this. That’s why he wants to debate. He has to debate. It isn’t a challenge from strength. It is a roll of the dice born of rational fear.

The risk, of course, the high-wire act in the current president’s gambit, is that he must win. Mere survival isn’t enough. A tie isn’t enough.

He must win — and win against a man for whom robust verbal sparring is practically a varsity sport. A Delawarean who was once reduced to spluttering insults about relative IQ against a supporter must match wits and words with a business titan from Queens.

The matchup makes little sense: from a simple game-theory perspective, the risk outstrips all possible reward. Right now, Joe Biden is mildly insecure in his position, and so he has decided to debate.

But if he does not decisively and visibly win — and from a purely objective standpoint, he probably will not — the chances are exceptionally high that he will call into being the very circumstances he dreads. Entering the Democratic National Convention with a public-debate loss to Donald Trump exponentially amplifies the probability that he will exit the convention as an ex-nominee.

It is a fraught and unforced position of extreme risk.

This tells us something else about him. Though he retains his political canniness sufficient to grasp his situation, he has lost his ability to rationally assess a course of action. Joe Biden’s ego is in charge.

In the course of a political career sufficiently lengthy to encompass most of the Hundred Years War, it has never led him right.

We have not addressed at length Donald Trump’s reasons to debate his opponent, but they do not merit lengthy exposition because they are obvious. His party is not nervous about him. His base won’t leave him. The narratives favor him.

The America First policies that ushered in a booming economy, secured the border, and brought peace through strength were winners with the American people — and set President Trump up for a resounding win on the debate stage.

Brooke Leslie Rollins is the President & CEO of the America First Policy Institute, and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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