There is always debate over the debates, but rarely so much debate about whether the debates should actually take place. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump threatened to pull out of the debates with Hillary Clinton if he wasn’t treated fairly. Trump had a history of skipping debates, having chosen not to attend the final Republican primary debate due to issues with Fox News host Megyn Kelly as moderator.
However, in the end, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton met for their three debates and the rest is history despite all the bluster.
What about this year? With concerns over Covid-19, is it prudent to hold in-person candidate debates? The answer seems to be a resounding “Yes,” since all kinds of distancing and testing measures will be in place to ensure both candidates, aging septuagenarians, will be able to meet for an in-person debate safely.
This year, however, compared to 2016, it seems to be Democrats having concerns over whether their candidate should actually show up and debate President Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently stated that Joe Biden should not debate President Trump under any circumstances. Pelosi cited her beliefs that the President will lie during the broadcasts and that there isn’t much in it for Biden to stand on stage with him:
Biden has already agreed to take part in three presidential debates before the November election, but Pelosi told reporters, “I don’t think that there should be any debates.”
She explained she did not think “the president of the United States has comported himself in a way that anybody should, and has any association with truth, evidence, data, and facts,” and as a result, any debate with him would just be an “exercise in skullduggery” by Trump.
“I wouldn’t legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States,” she said, though she acknowledged that the Biden campaign had a different view on the debates. Pelosi called Trumps’s conduct during his 2016 debates with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “disgraceful.”
However, as CNN points out, Pelosi isn’t doing the Biden campaign any favors. The complaints about Biden’s “basement campaign,” as critics call it, are already taking a toll. For a prominent Democrat like Nancy Pelosi to suggest Biden should continue avoiding public events, perhaps the most high-profile public events of the campaign season, might indicate she thinks Biden is better off out of the public eye:
Despite Biden’s quick denial of Pelosi’s no-debates proposal, there’s no question that the speaker just handed Trump’s campaign more fodder to make its case that the former vice president is hiding from the public — and the President.
“BREAKING: Biden campaign to ask Nancy Pelosi to join him in the basement,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sara Carter, a Fox News contributor, said this of Pelosi’s no-debates proposal: “Interesting… what do you think is going on here?
. . . Trump and his allies will seize on her comments as reflective of either a) secret coordination among Democrats to keep Biden from debating or b) a not-so-subtle lack of confidence by Pelosi in Biden’s abilities as a candidate. Or both.
Trump and his team have already sought to make the debates a major issue in the campaign, using them as a sign of Biden’s alleged unwillingness to engage.
Biden’s campaign was quick to shoot down Pelosi’s comments saying that the Democratic presidential candidate has already committed to participating in the debates and fully intends to be there.
Back in July, however, a New York Times opinion writer also suggested that Biden should not debate Trump — unless certain conditions were met:
First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.
And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.
Once again, it appears that Democrats are laying pre-conditions for debates this year while Donald Trump seems more willing and eager to participate than he was in 2016.
In fact, Nancy Pelosi is not the only prominent Democrat to float a “No Debates” policy for 2020. Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary to President Clinton, also made a similar statement last month:
“Whatever you do, don’t debate Trump,” he wrote on CNN. “Trump has made more than 20,000 misleading or false statements according to the Washington Post. It’s a fool’s errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth. Biden will undoubtedly take heat from Republicans and the media for skipping the debates. But it’s worth the risk as trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.”
Also in the “No Debates” column is noted Never-Trumper Bill Kristol, formerly of the Weekly Standard, now backer of The Lincoln Project. After the University of Notre Dame pulled out of hosting the first debate over Covid-19 concerns, Kristol said there was no need to replace it:
Political commentator Bill Kristol, a so-called “Never Trump” conservative, praised Notre Dame for withdrawing as host of the first presidential debate over coronavirus concerns.
“Good. No need to go to any trouble to replace this debate. Indeed, I gather Biden’s already all booked up with zoom calls in those weeks. Also, the Jewish holidays. And the new Perry Mason series. Too bad!” Kristol quipped on Twitter.
On the other side of the aisle, writing in the Washington Post, conservative author Hugh Hewitt said back in May that the Trump campaign should decline to participate in the normal schedule of debates and not allow the Commission on Presidential Debates to run the show in 2020:
But Trump would be crazy to accept the commission’s schedule or its role in setting formats and moderators. Though it is run by a bipartisan group, the Manhattan-Beltway media elites who are enmeshed in this outdated process are deeply anti-Trump, the opposite of neutrals. Debates are fine, but Trump should name one moderator, Biden another, and those two individuals agree on a third and then allow all networks to carry the feed.
It would be odd for Trump to agree to debate Biden under the authority of a commission deeply biased toward Beltway group think, no matter how confident he is that the former vice president lacks the energy to go two hours against him.
There is always trepidation over walking onto the stage on live television that a major flub or poor performance can make or break the campaign. In 2020, Democrats seem to fear that Joe Biden will turn in poor performance, or they’re concerned that no matter what Biden does, Trump will lie and mislead his way through the debates. On the other side, allegations of bias against the debate commission are creating excuses to avoid participation.
The Trump campaign has continued poking Biden over the debates, using it as a question about his fitness for the rigors of running for president, suggesting he will try to avoid participating in all three events:
“I would be highly surprised if Joe Biden actually went through with all three debates,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told The Washington Post earlier this month. “I think their strategy will be to show up to one, show that he is able to function and then pull the plug on any additional debates.”
President Trump started calling for adding more debates to the schedule, hoping to have a debate earlier in September before early voting and mail-in voting start across several states. The Commission on Presidential Debates rejected that proposal, instead deciding to stick with the traditional calendar:
“The commission has found that three 90-minute debates work well to fulfill the voter education purposes the debates are intended to serve,” a letter sent back to the Trump campaign said. “If the candidates were to agree that they wished to add to that schedule, the Commission would consider that request but remains committed to the schedule of debates it has planned as reflected in the attached release.”
The stakes are high for each candidate. Former Vice President Joe Biden can debate, and debate well, he’s proved it in the past and during the 2020 Democratic primary with his final debate against Bernie Sanders. Biden was focused, on message, and unmoved by Sanders’ attacks.
President Trump had his great moments during the 2016 primary and general election debates but is also fully capable of putting his foot in his mouth like Biden is.
Having both candidates on stage together, with a propensity to meander in their answers and tie things together to create a word salad of thought, will create a job for the moderators to reign in.
Unless something drastically changes, it would be expected that Biden and Trump will both show up to all three debates, despite the saber-rattling.
The first Trump-Biden debate takes place on September 29, 2020.