First debate a chance for Biden to finish the Trump smackdown he started during State of the Union

3 zingers Biden should hammer at Thursday's debate

Published June 25, 2024 6:27AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capital building on March 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capital building on March 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

Thursday’s debate gives President Joe Biden the opportunity to cash in on his challenge to Donald Trump last month to hold the earliest presidential debate in modern history. It’s a clear shot at accelerating the momentum of a three-point swing his way in the polls over the last three months, a trend registered even in the latest Fox News poll. 

The Biden campaign wants Thursday’s debate to galvanize and focus voters’ attention on an election that will determine whether our constitutional republic survives. Here’s how the president can repeat what he did in his State of the Union – go on offense, stay on message and keep “Big Mo” on his side. 

1. “A convicted criminal who’s only out for himself.”

President Biden’s campaign last week launched a $50 million TV ad buy whose key line shows how to capture two central truths about Trump. The first — that the former president is a “convicted criminal” — speaks for itself and is  hard for Trump to escape. As former Justice Department official Harry Litman has written, “Trump is an altered figure in the eyes of that law. No longer presumed innocent, he is proven guilty, a convict, a serial offender.”

This truth is already registering in a race that will be decided by independent voters. A Politico/IPSOS poll taken last week reported that more than 1 in 5 independent voters are less likely to vote for Trump after his conviction in New York on 34 felony counts. Whatever disillusionment Trump and his enablers have tried to foster in the justice system, those voters can see clearly that Trump got the verdict he deserved. 

Independents are thinking independently and that’s good for democracy. And Biden’s success in the debate depends on his ability to appeal to them as he did in 2020.

The second part of the ad – “he’s in it only for himself” is equally important. Biden can quote Bill Barr, Trump’s own attorney general, who said about Trump, “He will always put his own interests . . . ahead of everything else.” To stick the point, Biden should seize on last month’s news reporting that Trump promised oil executives that he will scrap all Biden measures to combat the climate change that produced record June heat if, and only if, those executives give Trump’s campaign $1billion. 

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“Money for Trump,” Biden could say, “more heat waves, hurricanes and tornadoes for ordinary Americans.” 

This line of attack matters not only because the solid majority of Americans and independents do not like graft. Fighting climate change is about the future, and the future is about the young people Biden needs to go to the polls and support him. 

2. Reproductive freedom is on the ballot

Equally important to young women — indeed, to all women as well as their loving partners — is the fundamental right that Trump’s Supreme Court took away after nearly 50 years. As an NBC headline put it, “Abortion rights have won in every election since Roe v. Wade was overturned.” Twelve more states have abortion rights on the ballot or under consideration in November. 

Trump has bragged about his appointment of the three reactionary justices who tipped the balance against Roe. The former president, despite waffling about abortion now, has previously said he supports national bans and that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. 

So Biden should borrow the soundbite that his key ally, Rep. James Clyburn used on Juneteenth: “Freedom versus favors.” Trump, the president should remind the debate audience, is the man who wants to be a dictator on day one to grant himself and his friends favors while limiting the rights of ordinary Americans. 

3. Americans don’t want government by vengeance, violence and victimhood

During the debate, Biden must tell Americans that all of our freedoms are on the line. For more than two centuries, Americans have cherished our right to speak freely and our freedom of the press. That’s how we help keep our government honest and how we keep our leaders serving us, not themselves.

Biden should use the debate to highlight Trump’s pledge that, if given a second term, his administration will be guided by vengeance, violence and victimhood. FDR had the four freedoms; Trump has the Three Unfreedoms.

Let’s take vengeance first. Trump has repeatedly told his MAGA cult, “I am your retribution.” Biden could point out that Trump said he would terminate the Constitution. That’s where our Bill of Rights resides. Trump has also threatened to go after the press and investigate MSNBC, calling the news network an “enemy of the people.”

Trump will encourage or condone violence and use it to drop an iron curtain on our freedom. He will welcome intimidation of his opponents by his MAGA supporters. Recall that during the September 2020 presidential debate, he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” They did as instructed on January 6, leading the violent mob that laid siege to Congress. Now Trump has embraced the January 6 insurrectionists with promises of pardons. He applauds violence done on his behalf.

“You’re not for law and order,” Biden could say, turning to Trump. “You’re for lawless disorder.”

“Thank God for our system of justice,” Biden can add. “An independent Justice Department in my administration prosecuted those Proud Boys and over 1000 more people who broke the law that day. Those prosecutions told them not to ‘stand by,’ but rather, we “can’t stand your violence – and will get you sentences of up to 22 years in prison.”

And finally there is Trump’s victimhood. Most Americans don’t want a president who still claims he won in 2020, and who says constantly that the world is against him. Biden should contrast Trump’s obsession over all the wrongs that have supposedly been done to him with Biden’s continuing commitment to the future, as he showed by enacting a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to build roads, bridges and internet groundwork – a bill that Trump kept promising but could never get done. 

The vast majority of voters, especially the crucial independents, don’t want a president who supports those who hate America, like Russia’s Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Americans want a president who will stand tough against them and protect our freedoms.

Biden should stress Trump’s focus on vengeance, violence and victimhood and his embrace of strongmen who use those means in leading authoritarian nations. The ex-president’s focus on anti-democratic measures helps explain why Mike Pence, Trump’s own vice president, will not endorse him in 2024. It also explains why two of Trump’s former defense secretaries, two of his National Security Advisers, his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and innumerable former senior White House aides agree that Trump is unfit for office and dangerous to the country and the world. He would be far worse than last time.

Biden should close the debate with the memorable words of General John Kelly, Trump’s longest serving chief of staff: “Donald Trump has no idea of what America stands for and no idea of what America is all about.”

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

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