The campaign shakeup Biden needed

Whatever happens in the first debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, it’s guaranteed to be among the most consequential moments of this campaign. And depending on the performance or one or both, holding that early debate in June could be the most consequential decision of this campaign.

To claim we are in uncharted waters or unprecedented territory is an understatement’s understatement. But make no mistake, the trajectory of this race for Biden — coupled with the outside events that are all working against the incumbent right now, namely inflation and Israel’s military operation in Gaza — was not sustainable, so the Biden campaign had to do something to change it.

It’s possible that Biden could have waited until the pre-scheduled debates in September or October to hope for a game-changing moment. But that would have been cutting it close.

Waiting until the fall to create a better contrast with Trump would have limited the opportunities to call audibles if Plan A didn’t work. Biden needed to shake up this race before the summer season of conventions and the Olympics.

Ultimately, the goal for Biden is to change the perception of him, not just the race. Last week, I wrote the following about voter perceptions of weakness from Biden and strength from Trump:

“Can the Biden campaign fix this image issue? Given our short-attention-span information ecosystem, one can always assume there’s time to change perception, but it’s getting difficult.

“The most obvious way to try to improve Biden’s weakness perception is to put Biden out there more often and in more places that aren’t so controlled. And while he has been out more, he’s still limited in his unscripted public appearances.”

When I was thinking about different ways for Biden to break through, I wasn’t thinking a June debate. But it’s probably among the best options one could think up to talk to the entire country before the fall.

Thanks to media fragmentation, we don’t have a lot of shared experiences as a country outside of huge sporting events — think Super Bowls and Olympics — or rare historical anomalies like this year’s eclipse.

Arguably, presidential elections and the presidential debates are about the only other events outside the non-sports world that capture the attention of most Americans in a single setting.

And although school will be out in late June and some folks will be focused on their summer plans, the entire country will see at least a part of this clash between Trump and Biden. It’s that significant, and our politics are that divided. Everyone will want to know how this plays out.

There has been plenty of excellent speculative analysis about the potential fallout from this decision to debate early. Some believe the Biden campaign did this to try to mitigate the importance and impact of the debates, agreeing to an early one in exchange for shrinking the debate lineup from three to two.

Some believe the Trump campaign agreed to Biden’s requests a bit too quickly. After all, how often do you see an incumbent playing the role of “debate challenger?” It usually only happens when said incumbent is behind. Does Trump really think debates help him? He obviously does, but the data suggests otherwise.

Perhaps the reason both Biden and Trump wanted this early debate is that they both feared the Commission on Presidential Debates would end up qualifying Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to participate in its events in the fall. By going this early, both candidates are setting up a one-on-one shot at each other before having to reckon with Kennedy, assuming he can get on enough ballots by the fall and qualify in the polls with a sustained 15% level of support.

An early debate also allows Biden and Trump’s campaigns more time to recalibrate before their own conventions, essentially mitigating the possibility that one debate ends their campaign. A bad debate performance in the fall could be more catastrophic politically than it would be, say, a week before July 4.

And of course, going early doesn’t preclude more debates in the fall. If Biden suddenly thinks he needs more debates, perhaps the Commission gets a call and its pre-planned September and October debates end up going forward.

And here’s one more technicality about scheduling an early debate: If the debate is a complete debacle for one of them, each party technically has time and a process to change nominees. After all, this first debate will take place before either candidate is the official nominee of their party.

But the scenario I’m wondering about most is one that I’m not sure either campaign has fully considered. It’s the possibility that the country will simply hate what it sees, period. If the debate is two old guys cursing at each other — which nearly happened in the debates four years ago — voters could find themselves even more depressed about their choices for the fall. And it’s impossible to say how the butterfly effect afterward would play out.

Would there be an outcry for someone else? Arguably, it’s the Democrats who seem less loyal to their presumptive nominee right now than the Republicans. Would disappointment in the major party pairing lead to more interest in Kennedy? What if he surges into the low 20s in polling throughout the summer? It would essentially guarantee the second debate would be a three-person matchup — unless the threat of including Kennedy kills the remaining debate.

Bottom line: This debate is going to matter a lot. And it is more likely than past debates to have unintended consequences that neither campaign foresees right now. So buckle up, because what we thought was going to be a potentially nauseating roller-coaster of a campaign for about 60 days in the fall is now starting about three months earlier. It’s why I’m carrying more Tums with me than ever.

The deep end of politics

Perhaps the most overlooked development of this new debate calendar is the prospect of an incredibly early vice presidential debate, though the Biden and Trump campaigns have accepted rival network invitations for now. The proposed dates are as early as late July, meaning the eventual GOP vice presidential pick could have less than two weeks between being selected and being on a debate stage with Vice President Kamala Harris. 

I do wonder if Trump is now forced to pick a running mate closer to the start of July, simply so his choice can have the proper amount of time to prepare (and also to get an introduction to the country). If Trump waits until, say, the eve of the convention, he’s really putting a lot of pressure on his vice presidential candidate to be ready on day one. 

A bad debate performance (or a “deer in the headlights” performance) in the first 10 days after being introduced as the GOP running mate would be hard to recover from if the pick hasn’t yet established their own connection with the public. If the debate is the introduction, it really raises the stakes for said nominee.

The smart thing for Team Trump is to get him to announce his pick before July 1. That, of course, runs counter to Trump’s love of drama, and if the pick is not in doubt by the start of the convention, it could lead to less interest in that event. And Trump cares about those things more than most candidates for office.

The care wallet

Sometimes an idea seems so simple and smart, you wonder why you haven’t heard it before.

I recently attended a fascinating discussion featuring female CEOs talking about what they’ve learned and their experiences trying to create more gender equity in the business world. One of the CEOs, as a semi-aside, talked about giving her employees a benefit that she referred to as a “care wallet.” In that wallet would be money and benefits that they controlled and could focus on needs that may be unique to them. It could be used for self-care (think mental health), childcare or elder care. (Hello, fellow sandwich generation members!)

The second I heard it, it was like a lightbulb went off in my political brain. This is a terrific way to build a broad consensus on tackling real challenges for today’s families in all three areas above. This is an idea that should and could go mainstream quickly. 

I have seen a handful of politicians talk about various versions of all these benefits and certainly, there are millions of Americans who could use help in all three areas. But I thought this was a smarter and more accessible way to make the case that all Americans should have access to benefits (whether though work or a government plan) that allows them this kind of flexibility. 

Not everyone has childcare needs, not everyone has elder care needs and not everyone has mental health needs that require a professional. But I bet all of us have at least one of those three needs. 

Slogans can make complicated things seem simple, and I know the “care wallet” can smack of that. But count me a persuaded that this is an idea that deserves traction and attention in the American political debate.