The key to winning Thursday’s presidential debate

25 June 2024
Editorial Board

Whichever candidate seems more focused on the future will prevail in the Trump-Biden rematch.

Elections are supposed to be about the future, but the 2024 campaign has dwelled on the past. Former president Donald Trump faces sentencing in New York for falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election and separate trials for trying to overturn the 2020 election. On the campaign trail, he promises retribution and revenge. Meanwhile, President Biden is doing his best to make 2024 another referendum, like four years ago, on Mr. Trump’s chaotic tenure. Neither message inspires.

The first presidential debate on Thursday, hosted by CNN, offers one of the few chances to change the trajectory of the race. Americans feel broadly unsatisfied with the choices before them, which they already know well. That puts the burden on each candidate to focus more on offering a compelling and plausible vision for what he wants to accomplish with a second term, giving Americans a reason not just to support them — but to vote at all. Neither candidate can assume turnout in 2024 will be as high as it was in 2020, or that he will win back everyone who supported him four years ago. A flurry of polls in recent days show a close contest. Majorities hold negative views of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Core Democratic constituencies, including Black and Hispanic voters, aren’t particularly motivated to vote for the president.

This is especially true for the disillusioned youth of Generation Z, who are more skeptical of government and pessimistic about the future than any other generation. They’ve experienced isolation from school covid-19 shutdowns, the rollback of abortion rights, the unpeaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election and the failures of government to curb gun violence or reverse climate change. Some are turned off from electoral politics by gruesome videos of Gaza civilian casualties on their social media pages.

Pew Research Center survey published Monday found that 62 percent of adults under age 30 say the nation cannot solve major problems. That’s the highest share of any age group. It’s 16 points higher than just two years ago. A CBS-YouGov poll released Sunday showed that about half of registered voters under age 30 think neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump understands the needs and concerns of younger people. Overwhelming majorities feel that, compared to previous generations, it’s harder to buy a home and raise a family. Mr. Biden needs to persuade this crowd that his policies will be better for them than Mr. Trump’s.

To be sure, both men have presidential records that can be compared and contrasted as each seeks a second term. This includes policies, temperament and character, as well as promises kept and broken. These are relevant in that they illuminate what the next four years might look like. The president can and should also explain how many of the nation’s problems were exacerbated by Mr. Trump’s presidency, punctuated by the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade and a mob ransacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In a Fox News poll last week, more respondents identified the future of democracy as extremely important to their vote than any other issue — including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Mr. Trump also deserves much of the blame for degrading the national debate.

Yet he accelerated longer-term trends of demonization and demagoguery. A report from the Open to Debate Foundation, in collaboration with Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, highlights how presidential debates have become more confrontational and less edifying over the past two decades. In 2004, there were only three instances of crosstalk across all three debates. In 2020, there were 76 interruptions during the first debate alone. The researchers counted five personal attacks in total across the nine debates in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Between 2016 and 2020, the candidates exchanged more than 60 personal attacks.

No one should imagine Thursday will bring a reprise of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But Americans should expect a vision from their presidential candidates that is as positive as the world’s leading democracy and economy has right to be, backed by serious ideas to change, even in increments, the country for the better. Acknowledging voters’ sour mood does not require wallowing in it. Fortunately, the debate rules offer hope that it will be more elevated than the messy first debate of 2020. For the first time since the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, there will be no studio audience to cheer or jeer. Microphones will be muted to minimize interruptions and crosstalk.

Mr. Biden, 81, presents older than Mr. Trump, even though the Republican is 78. Neither will live long enough to experience the full effects of their policies. The winner on Thursday will be whoever does a better job of conveying that he cares about the country, and the world, his grandkids will inherit.

What do you want to see in the 2024 presidential debates? Is there anything either candidate could do to change how you would cast your vote? Share your thoughts with us.