Author’s Note: While working on this piece on Thursday night, news broke that President Trump and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus. This unexpected turn of events calls into question the future of the debate series this Election Season. Social media immediately lit up with people speculating whether Trump was being honest about his health status. On Friday morning, Sen. Mitch McConnell said that the debates should continue. We can’t say today what will happen. But one thing is certain: Joe Biden, as the adult in the room, will make his choices around debating and campaigning based on science, expert advice, and a regard for people’s safety—not just his own.
Even before the presidential debate had drawn to its painful and exhausting close on Tuesday night, people—from professional politicos to living room spectators—were suggesting there should be no more debates.
The Washington Post posted an op-ed up within hours from George Will: “The national interest—actually, national security—demands that the other two scheduled mortifications, fraudulently advertised as presidential debates, should be canceled: When a nation makes itself pathetic, the response of enemy nations is not sympathy.”
By the next day, many other journalists and social media personalities had spoken up. Frank Bruni, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Bill Kristol, April Ryan, Eric Boehlert, Larry Sabato, and Walter Shaub all implored Biden to refuse to participate in future debates.
They supplied an abundance of rationales, from weakening the nation in the eyes of our enemies, as Will wrote, to weakening our democracy in our own eyes, as Brzezinski tweeted: “No more debates, No more opportunities for Trump to debase American democracy.”
Boehlert cautioned that while the press would dub the event a failure, “they’re going to couch it in Both Sides language, suggesting Biden was somehow at all responsible for the national embarrassment, when it was entirely Trump’s doing.”
Lawmakers chimed in as well, worrying that the whole messy spectacle would turn Americans off of the presidential election process entirely. Biden himself called it a “national embarrassment.”
And New York Times’ columnist Bruni wrote: “They [the voters] have all the information they need to decide whether they want another four years of Trump. Giving him more time in front of a national television audience isn’t a route to clarity. It’s an expressway to autocracy, because his performance on Tuesday night proved that he will use these showcases to subvert democracy.”
Simply put, Trump is doing what he does best: he is stirring s*** up, and he’ll just do it again, given the chance. Specifically, rallying a white supremacist group with the words “stand back and stand by.”
A white militia uprising notwithstanding, there are plenty of reasons for Biden to follow through on the debate. He can explain his plans—because, unlike Trump, he actually has them—to the American public. He also appears all the more presidential in contrast to Trump, who one member of Frank Lutz’s post-debate focus group likened to a “crackhead.”
Because everyone correctly recognizes that Biden is the grown-up in the room, they are calling on him to cancel the debates. “For the sake of the country, Joe Biden should refuse to appear again on the same stage as Donald Trump,” Kristol wrote. “Biden can have weekly or twice weekly town halls . . . But he should not put the nation through another ordeal like that.” Scarborough also put the onus on the Democrats, telling “Team Biden” to pull their candidate off the stage if the debates don’t resemble something we recognize as debates.
I get it. We all know the truth. Trump is never going to do the right thing, which means it’s up to Democrats to do so—or that’s what we’re supposed to believe. If you spend even a few minutes on social media, you will find that the vast majority of Americans feel the debate was a national embarrassment. What many people do not say is Trump was the national embarrassment. Sure, Biden called him a clown and said, “Shut up, man,” but he showed remarkable restraint to stand there and take Trump’s heaping abuse.
Why are there two sets of rules, one for Democrats and one for Republicans?
If you look to the candidates’ pasts, one truth is obvious: Trump is the likely one to cancel his debate appearance. In 2016 during the Republican primary, Trump skipped or threatened to skip several debates. Early in the cycle, he and Ben Carson forced the sponsor, CNBC, to cap the October debate at two hours. In January he skipped the seventh debate because he didn’t want to face Megyn Kelly as moderator. And he got rewarded for his bad behavior, garnering 36 percent of Twitter traffic during the debate and being the most searched-for candidate on Google that evening. He also announced he would skip the debate in March, which led to John Kasich bowing out and leaving only Ted Cruz to attend; there was no debate.
Even while facing impeachment charges in December 2019, Trump also threatened to skip the presidential debates—many months in the future with a then-unknown opponent—over a disagreement with the debate commission. “As President, the debates are up to me, and there are many options, including doing them directly . . .” Trump said. (Apparently, he was still upset because he believed the commission lowered the volume on his mic back in 2016 when he used the moniker “Crooked Hillary Clinton.”)
To be sure, though few will speak on the record, Republicans are concerned over Trump’s debate performance. Politico reports that “Sen. Ben Sasse called it a ‘s— show,’ Sen. Mitt Romney thought it was an ‘embarrassment’, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was ‘awful.’” On Wednesday, Trump claimed to have no knowledge of the Proud Boys. He also rejected changes to the debate format suggested by the debate commission, which included steps to make the proceedings more “orderly,” including allowing the moderator to cut the candidates’ mics. “We don’t want any changes,” a senior Trump campaign adviser said. So is Trump looking for a way out? Only time will tell.
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