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Why the Talk of Canceling Debates?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

There are three presidential debates scheduled before the Nov. 3 election. The first will be on Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The second will be on Oct. 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida. And the third will be on Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville.

Although the Kennedy-Nixon debates made history in 1960, general election debates were not a regular feature of presidential races until 1976. They've been held every election year since then. From Ford-Carter through Trump-Clinton, they have played a sometimes critical role in elections, giving millions of voters a chance to evaluate the candidates standing on the same stage.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden's campaign says he is ready to continue that tradition. "We are very much looking forward to debating Donald Trump," spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said on Fox News recently. But at the same time, some Democratic voices are urging Joe Biden to skip the debates with President Trump.

The most prominent is former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. In a July 28 Op-Ed published by CNN (Headline: "Joe Biden Could Still Lose This Election"), Lockhart argued that Trump has made so many false statements that it would be "a fool's errand to enter the ring with someone who can't follow the rules or the truth."

"In 2016, Hillary Clinton showed a mastery of the issues," Lockhart argued in an appearance on CNN. "I think she on every point was more honest and bested Trump. But Trump came out of the debates, I think, doing better because he just kept repeating the same old lies: We're going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. We're going to keep all of those Mexican rapists out of the country. We're going to make great trade deals." Lockhart does not want to give Trump the opportunity to make his case again.

This week, the veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew proposed eliminating all general election debates. They have become "irrelevant," she wrote in The New York Times. Drew said she was not writing out of concern for Biden, but she did acknowledge that debates are "a tool in [President Trump's] arsenal."

Last month, Times columnist Thomas Friedman said Biden should withdraw from the debates unless Trump agreed to two things: 1. to release his tax returns and 2. to endorse a "real-time fact-checking team" to work during the debate. Those were obviously deal-killers, so Friedman's call was in essence for Biden to cancel.

On July 27, after the University of Notre Dame withdrew (over coronavirus concerns) from the debate that will now be at Case Western Reserve, NeverTrump activist Bill Kristol tweeted, "Good. No need to go to any trouble to replace this debate. 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!"

Behind the snark, the message was clear: Some Democrats don't want to see Biden debate. Of course, Lockhart, Drew, Friedman and Kristol are not exactly high-ranking party operatives or officials of the Biden campaign. Still, they are not voices out of nowhere. So why would they want to skip perhaps the voters' best opportunity to judge the two presidential candidates side-by-side?

Simply put, some Democrats do not want debates because they do not think Biden will win them. The former vice president did not do particularly well in the Democratic primary debates. Still, Biden did not dodge those debates; he took part in 11 high-pressure faceoffs between June 2019 and March 2020. Even though he was shaky at times, there's no reason he should not take the stage with Trump, nor is there any reason Trump should not take the stage with Biden.

No, the real issue for some Democrats is that Biden is doing very well in the polls now -- up 7.4 percentage points over the president in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Why risk a big mistake in a debate watched by tens of millions of voters? In 2016, Trump dominated the supposedly better-prepared and certainly more experienced Clinton. Who's to say that wouldn't happen again?

But that's what debates are for -- to see how each candidate performs under pressure. The first President Bush called it "tension city." The time is nearing for President Trump and Joe Biden to go there.

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