Why a Disastrous Biden-Trump Debate Could Be the Best Outcome for America

A true dumpster fire of a performance from one or both might be a small step toward avoiding this awful rematch.


When Joe Biden and Donald Trump met on a debate stage in October 2020, the result was…something.

The Washington Post called it "the worst presidential debate in living memory." For media analyst Tom Jones at Poynter, it was a "dumpster fire" full of "constant interruptions. Constant talking over one another. Name-calling. Juvenile bickering." A transcript of the debate reads like gibberish. Some commentators suggested that the planned rematch a few weeks later should be scrapped (it happened, but the moderators came armed with a mute button).

One of the few positive reviews came from Reason's Jacob Sullum, who argued that the debate was "good for the republic" because it shattered the "unfounded respect for the people who rule us." Fair enough.

Welp, we're doing it again. Except this time the candidates are four years even older, the country is $7.8 trillion further in debt, and the number of swing voters to influence is (probably) even smaller. And rather than taking place in the final weeks of the campaign, as debates typically do, this absurd spectacle is unfolding before the two old men on stage have been officially named the nominees of their respective major parties.

In that last detail, however, shines a faint silver lining.

What if Thursday night's debate is a complete train wreck? And not in the same way as before. What if the debate doesn't merely descend into uncivil nonsense—which is the bare minimum of what should be expected—and doesn't simply confirm what the Biden-Trump debates in 2020 showed: that these men deserve neither our respect nor our affection?

No, I mean what if it is actually bad? Democrats have been working hard to counter-program any suggestion that Biden's mental acuity has declined, but the evidence keeps piling up. Polls show that voters are already quite skeptical of reelecting a president who will be 82 years old on Inauguration Day. What if something happens that's undeniable, inescapable evidence that Biden's no longer sharp enough to run the executive branch?

What if Trump confirms what some Republicans have been whispering in recent months: That he rambles like an elderly, intoxicated uncle, consumed by his spiraling legal problems and no longer in possession of the considerable charm and wit that's always been his best weapon as a politician? It's unlikely Trump could say or do anything at this point that alienates his core supporters, but what if he says something that reminds average Republicans why 10 members of his own party voted to impeach him at the end of his last term?

A truly disastrous debate could send a few delegates reaching for their dusty copy of The Party Decides, the 2008 book that argued backroom deals and high-level negotiations remained the most important part of the presidential nominating process, even after reforms in the 1970s boosted the power of primary voters.

That thesis has become something of a punchline in the Trump era—if 2016 definitively proved any single thing, it's that modern political parties are somewhat powerless in the face of a populist movement. But we live in unpredictable times, and on a practical level the four authors of that book aren't wrong: The nominees will be decided by the delegates at the Republican and Democratic conventions. That's what really matters.

The window between now and the conventions is the last chance for Biden or Trump to be tossed out without triggering other complications. As Princeton professor Keith E. Whittington explained in a recent Reason cover story, there are procedures in place to fill a vacancy if a party's nominee or president-elect dies or is otherwise incapacitated.

Right now, however, neither Trump nor Biden are the official nominees. Delegates are pledged to vote for them at the convention, so any usurpation would require the presumptive nominee to step aside or for the Republican National Committee or Democratic National Committee to change its rules. Still, there's a chance!

Is there much of a chance? No. Trump's hold over the Republican Party, in particular, is so strong that it's difficult to even fantasize about the GOP tossing him overboard at this point. His every vice has been retconned into a virtue. More importantly, his closest allies control the party's levers of power. The primary was less a coronation than a joke, and even his myriad legal issues (some legit, others not so much) don't seem to be a problem for his supporters.

Biden, meanwhile, probably can't be realistically ousted at the convention unless he decides to step aside. So Democrats should start trying to convince him to do that! Who takes his place? Not really my problem, but I'd suggest taking a good hard look at the governor of Colorado. Democrats could do a lot worse right now.

Throwing them both overboard would be in the best interest of the parties and, more importantly, the country. Biden's approval rating is under 40 percent. Trump's is only slightly better. Neither has a serious plan to address the spiraling cost of government—I repeat, the national debt has increased by $7.8 trillion since October 2020—or a comprehensive vision for the future of America. They're both too old and too out of touch to understand the issues facing most Americans. They don't have workable plans to reduce inflation, shrink the cost of government, or grow the economy. American politics would benefit from both exiting the race.

To be clear, I'm not rooting for any actual medical or health emergency to befall either man (though that's a distinct possibility too, if not on Thursday, then at some point before November). Short of that, however, I'm hoping for the worst, most unwatchable, least coherent contest imaginable. I want to feel stupider for having watched it. I want CNN's Anderson Cooper to apologize directly to the audience afterward.

And then I—and lots of other Americans, if the polls are to be believed—want the two major parties to realize this rematch is a terrible mistake and start finding a new set of presidential candidates.