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The Meta Debate About the Presidential Debates (or Lack Thereof)


The Trump campaign juxtaposed an empty podium bearing the words “Anytime, Anywhere, Anyplace” with its candidate on the other side of the stage delivering a full-throated address earlier this week.

“That’s for Joe Biden,” Trump told the Green Bay crowd of the empty podium. “I’m trying to get him to debate, I’m calling on ‘Crooked Joe’ to debate anytime, anyplace. We’ll do it anywhere you want, Joe, so that we can discuss in a friendly manner the real problems of the country, of which there are many, instead of trying to have corrupt prosecutors fight your battles for you.”

The debate about debates, like discussions over the candidates’ cognitive health and the legal issues surrounding Trump and the Bidens, demonstrates the genius of politicians in presenting the sideshow as the circus. Such issues do not persuade voters about the worth of the candidate’s proposed policies and general philosophy. They largely distract from the main issues facing the next president.

The national debt approaches $35 trillion, war overwhelms Haiti, Israel, Ukraine, and points beyond, and illegal immigrants overwhelm the southern border. Yet, the political discussion fixates on personalities, courtroom drama, and process issues that do not illustrate the governing philosophies of either major candidate.

Ironically, debates, the forum that often illuminates the plans and outlooks of candidates, move in our centering-of-the-sideshow politics out from under the big tent into the domain of bearded ladies and sword swallowers.

It seems unlikely Joe Biden and Donald Trump face each other on a stage. It seems very likely that debates about a theoretical debate permeate the national discussion from now until the fall. This latter type of debate makes everyone dumber.

Why no debate?

Democrat Katie Hobbs chickened out of a debate with Republican Kari Lake in 2022’s Arizona governor’s race. Despite trailing in the polls and looking cowardly for refusing to debate, Hobbs won the election. The voters rewarded, or at least did not care to punish, weakling behavior.

The president’s team undoubtedly noticed. The Hobbs example provides Biden the rationale for why debating Trump does not make sense.

And incumbents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did not debate their opponents. They won two of the greatest landslides in presidential history.

The plethora of somewhat credible third-party candidates — everyone knows Robert Kennedy, Jr., Cornell West, and, by this point, Jill Stein, and the Libertarian Party usually garners more votes than other alternative parties — sets up innumerable controversies that practically invite the president to withdraw. One, probably RFK, Jr., possibly passes the stated thresholds for winning a place on the debate stage. Recall Jimmy Carter’s refusal to share the stage with independent John Anderson in 1980 that resulted in a single debate between the president and Ronald Reagan instead of the planned three.

When asked last month whether he would debate, the president said, “[I]t depends on his behavior.” Americans remember Trump’s behavior — then the nadir of his short career as a politician — during the first 2020 presidential debate. Even Republicans watching felt flashbacks to annoying people from their pasts who incessantly interrupted and operated as though the rules did not apply. Biden’s people undoubtedly feel that 2020 catastrophic performance — possibly catalyzed by undiagnosed COVID shortly thereafter revealed in Trump — provides an excuse for not debating in 2024. Alas, Biden debated Trump four weeks later, which undermines any current argument against debating that rests on the September 29, 2020, televised disaster.

At 82, Biden gives the White House staff fits even when taking questions from the press. Sage Steele’s revelation that ESPN executives scripted questions for her 2021 interview with Biden buttresses this presidency-with-the-bumper-rails-up mindset. So, too, did last year’s scandal of Biden holding a card with a Los Angeles Times reporter’s name, picture, and the question she subsequently asked. If Joe Biden’s handlers cannot control the environment, then the president stays far away. And no environment appears so unpredictable as one featuring Donald J. Trump.

To protect the president from any backlash from skipping this passage rite to the presidency, booster journalists propel a narrative that such unconventional behavior necessarily excommunicates Trump from the sacredness of the debate stage — that place where Al Gore invaded George W. Bush’s personal space, Bernie Shaw asked about the hypothetical rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis, and Gerald Ford denied Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

“Presidential debates are for candidates who know how to conduct themselves in public, and who’ve earned the right to be on the stage,” Steve Benen of MSNBC maintains. “Trump falls short on both counts.”

Actually, he does not. He won the nomination of a 170-year-old party, appears on the ballot in all 50 states, and leads narrowly in most polls. And the question regarding whether he earned the right to debate misses the point. The real question: Have the voters earned the right to see the candidates whose names appear on their ballots debate on a stage before they make their choice?

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump debated their primary opponents. It seems rich for Trump now or Biden later if he trails to demand what they failed to give prior to securing the nomination.

It nevertheless amounts to an injustice for either man to dodge this fairly consistent (recently at least) quadrennial fall tradition. Civic-minded groups did not draw up the idea of presidential debates, after all, to serve this or that candidate. They wished to serve the voters.

And just as the absence of serious debate about how the Fed unnaturally suppressing interest rates brought about inflation or the role of welfare programs in attracting a substantial chunk of Central and South America to relocate in the United States does not serve the American people, the absence of actual debates between the major presidential candidates does not serve them, either.

It insults them.


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The American Spectator

The American Spectator is a conservative U.S. monthly magazine covering news and politics, edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. and published by the non-profit American Spectator Foundation.

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