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What the Last Biden-Trump Debate Tells Us Now

It was late October 2020. President Trump had just recovered from a serious case of Covid. A planned second debate between Trump and Joe Biden had been canceled.

And now, in front of a muted crowd, the two men strode onstage in Nashville in dark suits as Biden peeled a cloth mask away from his face.

It appears to be the last time the former and current president were in the same room together — but it turned out not to be their ultimate showdown.

On Wednesday morning, over a flurry of social media posts, the two men who can’t stop running against each other announced they had agreed to meet for two more one-on-one debates: one on June 27, and the other on Sept. 10.

The June meeting — assuming all goes according to plan — will be the latest in-person clash for two men whose contemporary political identities have been irrevocably forged by their shared enmity. Trump, ever the norm-buster, did not attend Biden’s inauguration after his election defeat, so the two men never formally met to hand off power.

I sometimes think about the 2024 election as bizarro 2020, where the characters are the same but key story lines have turned upside down, and the contrasts between that October joust and the one most likely coming in June give us plenty of grist to think about the election that way.

The pandemic is now little more than background noise in American life. The roles of incumbent and attacker have flipped. And the candidates’ positions in the race could well be the opposite of what they were in late October 2020, when Trump was trailing Biden nationally and in key swing states — just as Biden trails Trump now.

I decided to go back to that last debate, curious whether there is anything left to learn with the benefit of three and a half years of hindsight.

The October debate had unfolded under extraordinary circumstances. Biden and Trump’s first meeting, in late September, was nothing short of chaotic, with Trump constantly interrupting Biden. At one point, after he was asked to denounce white supremacy, he urged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” It later became clear that he had Covid when he stepped onstage.

So what’s most jarring about watching the Oct. 22 debate is the fact that it seemed, well, kind of normal. Watching it now is eerie for how few signs there were in those 90 minutes of the chaos that was coming: a contested election result, Trump’s attempt at holding onto power, the Jan. 6 riot.

Trump’s advisers, my colleagues reported at the time, had spent weeks urging him to dial back his attacks on Biden, urging him to control his temper and try to present himself as something akin to presidential.

“I’m not a typical politician, that’s why I got elected,” Trump declared at one point on the Nashville stage, setting the tone with the kind of statement that is, in fact, quite typical of a politician.

The two tangled over policy, politics and pandemic response, laying out starkly different visions for the future. Their fights over issues on health care, immigration policy and the nuts and bolts of getting things done in Washington felt oddly like a throwback to the days before Trump had upended the norms of American politics — even as their tussles over the reality of the pandemic in front of them revealed just how little anybody really knew at that time.

“We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away,” Trump said, long before Covid variants like “omicron” and “delta” became globally known shorthand. He spoke glowingly of the vaccine his administration had poured billions of dollars into.

“Two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand Americans dead,” Biden said, telling voters who heard nothing else that they should hear this: “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts more than 700,000 cumulative provisional Covid deaths since Biden took office.)

With a summer of protest over racial justice behind them, they clashed over racism, with Trump declaring himself to be “the least racist person in this room.” Biden said the opposite was true, and used a moment when Mr. Trump compared himself to Lincoln against him.

“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden said. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”

Trump sought to depict himself as a legislative mastermind — “You gotta talk ’em into it, Joe,” he said, pointing to the criminal justice reform bill he passed — and, in a thoroughly conventional attack, sought to depict his rival as an old-style pol who had simply been around too long.

“It’s all talk, no action with these politicians,” Trump said. “Why didn’t he get it done?”

The debate presaged certain Republican lines of attack that have persisted well into Biden’s administration, particularly regarding the overseas business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. Trump accused Biden of accepting money from China and Ukraine, saying that, in emails, Biden was referred to as “the big man.”

“If I spent $1 million on you, Joe, I could find plenty wrong, because the kind of things that you’ve done and the kind of monies that your family has taken,” Trump said. He laid out a line of attack that Republicans in the House have pursued for months to no avail, as they have sought unsuccessfully to impeach the president. (Hunter Biden is set to face trial soon, although on unrelated charges.)

Biden strenuously denied those accusations and said it was Trump who had been self-dealing. “The guy who got in trouble in Ukraine was this guy,” he said. “The only guy that made money from China was this guy.”

Even if the debate was relatively tame, I’m struck today by how personal it all was, how deeply the men’s disdain for each other seemed to run below the surface.

“I ran because of Barack Obama — I thought you did a poor job,” Trump said, casting the Obama-Biden administration as the raison d’être for his two presidential campaigns. “If I thought you did a good job, I never would have run. I’m looking at you now, you’re a politician. I ran because of you.”

Biden has long cited Trump’s blithe reaction to the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Mr. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” as his motivation for running for president in 2020. And Biden has said he is running for re-election because he believes he is the only person who can beat Trump now. On the debate stage that night, he urged voters to look at both men closely.

“You know who I am, you know who he is, you know his character, you know my character, you know our reputations for honor and telling the truth,” Biden said. “I am anxious to have this race. I’m anxious to see this take place. I am — the character of the country is on the ballot. Our character is on the ballot. Look at us closely.”

The debate was a reminder of just how deeply each man has shaped the other, the way each spurred the other to run and keep running, and has goaded and frustrated the other along the way. The two men have little respect for the other and cannot fathom losing to the other, but they probably would not be quite who they are, politically, without the other — and that strange and long relationship will be on display once again in June.

On Tuesday, the Total Wine and More co-owner David Trone, a Maryland congressman, lost the Democratic primary for Senate to Angela Alsobrooks, a county executive, despite pouring $61 million of his own money into the race. It was an eye-popping flop — and one that, it turns out, is not uncommon for political self-funders. I asked my colleague Minho Kim to tell us more.

More than 80 percent of candidates who outspent their opponents ended up winning their congressional races in 2022. That would have seemed like good news for Trone, who outspent Alsobrooks 9 to 1.

But a big spender’s odds plummet, it turns out, when they are big self-funders.

In the last election cycle in 2022, only six out of 44 candidates who were running in federal races and who spent more than $1 million out of their own pocket won, according to the campaign-finance research nonprofit OpenSecrets.

The list of candidates who had the initial advantage of deep pockets but lost includes Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV personality who lost his Senate race to John Fetterman in 2022. There are also Vivek Ramaswamy, who dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, and Mr. Trone himself from 2016, when he spent $12.7 million and lost a Democratic primary for the House.

Political scientists say the grueling work of fund-raising actually helps a candidate build their network and their base. When voters donate to races or attend events, they also become more likely to vouch for their preferred candidates to their friends and family. And it gives candidates practice testing out their message and speaking in front of a crowd.

“It’s one thing to sit in your living room and green-light television advertising — it’s another thing to wake up early in the morning, go out and meet the commuters,” said Bradley Honan, a Democratic pollster who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaigns.

Bloomberg’s campaigns for mayor were a successful example of self-funding, but Bloomberg seemed to unlearn any lessons he picked up from them. In 2020, he spent more than $1 billion on a presidential run in the Democratic primary, but he won only one contest — in American Samoa.

Minho Kim

This morning, about three-quarters of a mile into the charity 5K my colleague Reid Epstein had persuaded me to run, I thought I spotted someone familiar just ahead.

Was that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson?

It was.

The ACLI Capital Challenge is an annual Washington road race where reporters and government staffers race along the Anacostia. The porta-potties are jokingly labeled accordingly. A big one was labeled “Senate.” Other commodes read “Executive Branch,” “Law Clerks” and “White House Staff.”

Jackson was one of three justices to compete this morning. Justice Brett Kavanaugh ran the race in 24:20, according to the posted results. Justice Amy Coney Barrett clocked in at 26:09.

Just seconds before Barrett crossed the finish line came Judge Tanya Chutkan, the federal judge who is handling Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 case — a matter that has been delayed while the justices consider Trump’s claims of immunity.

I didn’t see either Judge Chutkan or Justice Barrett. I crossed the finish line a full six minutes later.

Jess Bidgood

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