To debate or not to debate

For many decades, there has been broad bipartisan support for the notion that the presidential nominees of the two major parties should debate each other. Privately, some may have questioned whether such debates should occur, but publicly, support for presidential debates has been nearly unanimous.

Suddenly, though, pro-Biden voices are urging that there be no presidential debates this year. Elizabeth Drew, whose work I haven’t seen in at least a decade, gave voice to this position in a New York Times op-ed. Bill Kristol takes the same position publicly, as does former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart.

Lockhart’s argument is that Donald Trump is too much of a liar to debate. Drew makes largely the same point, but more obliquely. But if calling a politician a liar, even with justification, were enough to cancel debates, presidential debates never would have gotten off the ground.

The first such debates were between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon was considered a liar, and not without justification.

Bill Clinton, Joe Lockhart’s boss, was a congenital liar. (I love Jackie Mason’s line: “Bill Clinton is a pathological liar. Nixon lied too, but at least he had the decency to sweat when he did it.”) I don’t recall Elizabeth Drew or anyone else balking at Clinton’s appearance in two sets of presidential debates.

The 2016 election featured two liars — Trump and Hillary Clinton. They debated three times.

In effect, the “don’t debate Trump” crowd wants to deny Trump an established and important forum on the theory that he’s really, really awful, but the public can’t see through him. The authoritarian undertones of this argument are obvious.

But the real reason Drew-Kristol-Lockhart don’t want a Trump-Biden debate is fear that Biden will fare badly. The idea is to hide Biden’s inadequacies from voters.

Is this the smart move? Biden might well do poorly in debates, but then again, he might not. He wasn’t that bad during the endless procession of Democratic debates. Moreover, expectations for Biden will be quite low. It’s far from clear to me that he can’t meet them.

Moreover, there’s an obvious downside to Biden ducking debates with Trump. It will fuel the narrative that his mental capabilities have, in fact, seriously diminished. It will be viewed by many as an admission that he’s not up to the job of U.S. President.

As noted in this post, there is reason to believe that Biden needs to overcome this perception among swing voters. If he’s ahead of Trump, he may need to “seal the deal” with a competent performance in at least one debate. If he’s behind, he may need a debate in the hope of catching up.

Biden’s best move when it comes to debate[s] is to keep his options open. The “don’t debate Trump” crowd, in a blatantly cynical move, hopes to lay the groundwork for a nuclear option, if needed.