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Patrons watch President Joe Biden debate Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, at a debate watch party Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Many watching last night’s debate wondered if this was the end for Joe Biden. But I could not help but wonder if this was the end of presidential debates.

Debates can be hard to write about, given that there’s not much evidence they have a large impact on the campaign, and it is hard not to view them through ideological prisms or reduce them to theatrical “performances.”

But the June 2024 presidential debate was interesting for at least two reasons: One candidate gave a performance whose failings reinforced a widespread concern about him; and the entire 90-minute program on CNN was a reminder about the limits of this kind of event.

Style is substance

Predictions that a more focused Donald J. Trump would appear at the debate were an understatement. Mr. Trump was far more disciplined and restrained than in his previous debates, an appearance only further bolstered by the contrast with President Biden. Mr. Biden was off, to put it mildly.

Mr. Biden seemed unfocused and confused, offering what The New York Times called a “halting and disjointed performance.” It was also striking how often Mr. Biden recovered his train of thought by falling back on familiar phrases like “By the way…”

[Democrats: If you respect voters, replace Joe Biden]

It is tempting to argue that Mr. Biden won on substance. He certainly did grow stronger as the debate progressed. But that seems to miss the point of a debate, which is showing grace under fire. Mr. Biden’s more cogent moments suggest that he has a better grasp of policy than does Mr. Trump, but his “senior moments” leave the impression that he is not able to govern. The leader of the free world needs to be able to perform well under pressure, and that is not something voters saw during this debate. As the former Obama advisor Van Jones tearfully said on CNN after the debate, “He had a test to meet tonight…and he failed to do that.” As for the many Republican voters who would like an alternative to Mr. Trump, President Biden’s performance probably did not give them much reason to cross the aisle.

The question of substance and policy also feels like another lesson not learned from 2016. Where is the evidence that a casual relationship with the truth hurts politicians? Where is the evidence that it hurt Mr. Trump in either presidential election?

In a “post-truth” society, fact-checking will rarely change anyone’s mind because voters with different political allegiances see the world differently. Consequently, the level of trust for the fact-checkers is polarized: higher for those who have incentives to believe them, and lower for those who don’t.

Further, facts don’t win elections. Stories do. Many of Mr. Trump’s lies and falsehoods do not bother his voters because they believe in a bigger narrative about his heroic role in making the United States great again. Even if they admit that he gets the “details” wrong, the big picture he sells resonates with them.

Most political scientists would say that debates do not matter much. Voters are not tuned in this early, and the results will be refracted through partisan lenses. Perhaps the Biden campaign was naïve to push for a June date in the hope that it might help Mr. Biden sooner than later.

But here’s a hypothesis: When a debate intersects with a major campaign issue in a way that can be widely disseminated through media, then the debate might matter.

In this case, Mr. Biden’s painful moments reinforced one of voters’ leading concerns about the president, his age. It did so, moreover, in ways that became an immediate talking point across the chattering classes, with the potential to be communicated to millions of voters who did not watch the debate. Mr. Biden’s problem is that these voters are not going to read social media threads explaining the nature and limits of debates, or opinion pieces about how, if you think about it, Mr. Biden actually did better than Mr. Trump.

The end of debates?

Mr. Trump said repeatedly that there was no point in the debate, as there was “no debate” about who would be the better president.

This may be more than a throwaway line. Donald Trump opted out of the debates for the 2024 GOP primaries, and both he and Mr. Biden swore off the standard debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. That is how we ended up with a debate in June, before either party’s nominating convention. It could also be how we turn out to have only one debate. If the polls continue to go well for Mr. Trump he could well back out of the second planned debate in September, thus denying Mr. Biden an opportunity to redeem himself.

Perhaps in the future, the debates will not be the standard feature of presidential campaigns that they have been since 1976. The decision to participate in debates might become more of a strategic, prudential decision about if and how it would benefit candidates.

More fundamentally, Mr. Trump’s line reflects the absurdity of debate today: We do not think those we disagree with deserve a hearing. Many people live in ideologically constructed worlds in which they not only have little practice listening to others but indeed have few incentives to.

A debate suggests an exchange of views. There’s no point in pretending that they are ever particularly intelligent, but there has to be some pretension to rationality. If the future of American politics is increasingly irrational, then there seems to be little point in debates.

Of course, politics can be irrational in many ways, and one of its more disturbing forms is apocalypticism. Last night’s debate was striking for its absence of hope. Both candidates, at least at times, played into the narrative that the goodness of the United States is profoundly fragile—that it can be wiped away by electing the wrong person. This is not only a cynical electoral narrative, but something that far too many commentators and voters believe.

But if the other guy is essentially evil, then why debate him? Why engage the devil? It would seem irrational, especially if the door is increasingly open for candidates to opt out of debates.

Perhaps it is premature to predict the future of debates, but it is reasonable to ponder whether we are able to satisfy the basic conditions for one. Last night seemed a confirmation in the negative.

[Democrats: If you respect voters, replace Joe Biden]

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