The greatest spectacle in politics takes place every four years when the two people who are vying to become president of the United States debate.
It's a debate unto itself: will they or won't they? The answer may be, it depends on what your definition of "debate" is.
There have been questions all along whether President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will debate this year. While pundits initially thought Trump would bow out, more recently, the focus has shifted to whether Biden will participate.
In December 2019, the economy was riding high. Unemployment was at historic lows in every category, and "social distancing" wasn't in our vocabulary. Trump launched a series of tweets airing grievances with the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Media outlets, including The New York Times and New York magazine, reported, "Trump May Skip 2020 Debates," and "Trump May Be Laying Groundwork to Skip 2020 Debates."
That was never true. Trump could never miss an opportunity to stand in the spotlight. Above all, Donald Trump may be the greatest narcissist ever. He is confident that nobody can beat him. He would never skip a presidential debate.
By July — with COVID-19 showing no sign of subsiding after infecting over 3 million and killing over 125,000 Americans, and with anarchy in many cities across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis over Memorial Day weekend — the script was flipped.
Whispers became acknowledged when New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column July 7. The title, "Biden Should Not Debate Trump Unless…," set the premise.
Friedman offered two impossible conditions that Trump would have to agree to before Biden would debate him:
- Trump must release his 2016–2018 tax returns.
- There would have to be a real-time fact-checking team.
Both are patently ridiculous. Friedman's column was just the shot over the bow.
In a piece for CNN, Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton's former White House press secretary, opined that it would be "a fool's errand to enter the ring with someone who can't follow the rules or the truth."
The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote, "Will Joe Biden Duck the Debates?" And Donald Trump taunted Biden over his mental facilities and cognitive capabilities.
The Biden campaign notes that they have committed, in writing, to participate in three debates, while Trump has not. While Trump has pushed for a fourth, earlier debate, it is true that, at present, Trump has no written commitment to participate in the three scheduled.
Joe Biden is riding a comfortable lead in every poll. Unlike Hillary Clinton, he doesn't have immutable negatives, and in contrast to 2016, when many thought Trump might learn to conduct himself more "presidentially," it's now clear that he "is what he is."
How risky would it be for Biden to skip debating? It would look awful. Some think it would be an egregious mistake that could cost Biden the election. We have seen and heard Joe fumble and (as my bubbie would say) fumphet frequently. On the other hand, he was sharp in his one-on-one encounter, in March, with Bernie Sanders and steady during his DNC acceptance speech. If he has a similar performance debating Trump, it may seal the election.
Biden has good and bad days. When CBS correspondent Errol Barnett asked if he had taken a cognitive test, Biden responded: "No, I haven't taken a test. Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man. That's like saying to you, before you got on this program if you had taken a test were you taking cocaine or not. What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?" If he has a moment like that like in a debate, it could lead to a Trump comeback.
Is it worth the risk?
There is no way of knowing now if Biden will be on or off the three nights of the debates.
There are smart people at the helm of Biden's campaign, and they know the stakes. They must minimize Biden's exposure without his backing out. There is a way to accomplish both.
I believe Biden's camp will argue that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with two of the original venues already having canceled, the two men don't need to stand face-to-face on the same stage. Like the Democratic Convention, debates can be done virtually over Zoom or Skype. A sympathetic press would certainly throw Biden shade.
With both men in separate locations, the possibility of mischief is tremendous. In 2004, some accused George W. Bush of receiving transmissions from his aids. In a virtual debate, communication from advisers would be simple. It wouldn't be complicated to use Biden's screen as a teleprompter, with advisers providing a script in real time, mostly pre-written responses.
Expect Biden to try to "debate" Trump without gambling — or backing out — by using the pandemic as an excuse to go virtual. It is unacceptable. Trump and Biden must be on the same stage, mano a mano.
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He is regarded as one of the leading radio programmers in the country. Andy served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. For more information, his website is www.andybloom.com. Read Andy Bloom's Reports – Go Here Now.
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