Opinion: CNN Wants to Mute Trump at Its Debate. Good Luck With That

Animated GIF by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Animated GIF by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

There are a few events in every presidential campaign that matter. The upcoming presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump—just over a week from now—will likely be one such moment. But who is likely to benefit from the clash?

To a certain degree, victory is contingent on the rules of the debate (CNN has announced their rules, which have been agreed on by both campaigns).

Based on what I’m seeing, the deck is stacked in Biden’s favor.

Let’s start with what might be the most important change: “Microphones will be muted throughout the debate except for the candidate whose turn it is to speak.”

Fox News Is Already Throwing a Hissy Fit Over Next Month’s CNN Debate

It’s easy to imagine that constant interruptions could cause Biden to lose his train of thought amid the chaos, thereby creating a “senior moment” that would reinforce the narrative that says he’s too old for a second term.

On the other hand, during the first presidential debate in 2020, Trump’s attempt to exasperate Biden backfired, resulting in Biden’s best line of the night: “Will you shut up, man?” A muted mic would have deprived Biden of that zinger.

Still, the first rule of this debate probably has to be “do no harm.” And the muted mic decree seems very likely to reduce the risk for Biden.

Couple that with Trump and his minions unwisely downplaying Biden’s cognitive ability, and Biden could win the expectations game merely by showing up and not drooling on himself.

The other important CNN debate rule is that there will be no studio audience.

Even if Trump were not permitted to stack the audience with supporters (as he did during last year’s controversial CNN town hall), Trump disproportionately benefits from a live audience.

“Trump feeds off the crowd, they give him life,” one Biden adviser told Politico. “We wanted to take that away.”

They did.

Again, this rule seems almost guaranteed to aid Biden.

This is not to say that the rule change is unfair or that studio audiences should be allowed. One could argue that modern political debates have become “TV shows” that are too focused on entertaining us as consumers, rather than feeding us as citizens.

Regardless, genuinely restoring the intellectual grandeur of presidential debates would require much broader reforms than those instituted by CNN. Instead, CNN’s rules simply seem narrowly tailored to squash a repeat of Donald Trump’s behavior during the first 2020 debate.

Which is why it’s so curious that Trump has allowed Biden and CNN to set these particular parameters.

(Note: Fox News’ Sean Hannity might be ahead of the curve on recognizing this; Hannity recently floated the idea that Trump should “pass on the debate” until he’s the official nominee.)

Having been disadvantaged by the rules, the two most pertinent remaining questions may be: Will CNN enforce the rules—and what happens if Trump tries to break them?

If CNN fails to enforce the rules, it will be a major blow to Team Biden. After all, Biden decided to forgo having the Commission on Presidential Debates sponsor the debate precisely because it “was unable or unwilling to enforce the rules in the 2020 debates,” resulting in “noisy spectacles of approval or jeering.”

The good news is that CNN’s rules seem both simple and easy to implement.

Microphones can easily be muted when it’s the other candidate’s turn, and there won’t be an audience to break any “no applause” rules that CNN might otherwise have requested of a live audience.

Now, it’s possible that Trump will still attempt to interrupt Biden, even after his microphone has been cut. But the risk-reward ratio for Trump doing so is not great.

To be sure, Trump is Harry Houdini, but it’s hard to imagine how he will escape these debate rules.

At this point, you might wonder why Trump’s team agreed to these rules.

To be honest, I’m not sure.

We may look back and say that Trump lost the debate (and thus, the election) back in May, when the contours of the rules were established. That was the moment that Joe Biden used Donald Trump’s debate taunts (“anywhere, any time, any place”) as an opportunity to set some key parameters and box Trump into an unfavorable position.

Biden seized the initiative and picked the timing (much earlier than most General Election debates). Biden picked the number of debates (just two, plus a vice presidential debate). And Biden was first to accept CNN’s invitation to host the debate, and CNN set the rules.

Debates are complex and dynamic, and it is impossible to predict which side will actually benefit most from the rules (you can’t stop Trump, you can only hope to contain him). But if most battles are won before they are fought, Team Biden got everything they could have wanted.

Forgive me for re-setting the expectations, but this is now Joe Biden’s debate to lose.

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