Joe Biden, the presumptive Democrat nominee, is under mounting political pressure not to debate President Donald Trump this fall.
In recent weeks, a bevy of political strategists, pundits, and even allies have intensified their efforts to push the former vice president’s campaign into reneging on the three customary presidential debates. Much of the effort has played out in the public eye, spanning across the editorial pages of the nation’s leading newspapers, network television, and even social media.
Some of the arguments utilized by proponents of jettisoning the debates center around Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and the president’s proclivity for making untruthful or embellished statements.
“I worry about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump. He should do it only under two conditions. Otherwise, he’s giving Trump unfair advantages,” The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last month, asserting that it was imperative for the incumbent to make his tax returns transparent and for both candidates to agree to the inclusion of a “real-time fact-checking team” for the debates.
Ten “minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered,” Freidman wrote. “That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.”
A similar sentiment was echoed on Sunday by Joe Lockhart, a noted Democrat strategist who served as press secretary for the Clinton-era White House, during an appearance on CNN.
“It’s a fool’s errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth,” Lockhart said. “Biden will undoubtedly take heat from Republicans and the media for skipping the debates.”
The strategist added that any potential blowback over skipping the debate was “worth the risk, as trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.”
Although much of the argument for skipping the debates has revolved around fears that Trump’s will use the forum to spread inaccurate information, some strategists and pundits have ventured further.
A few, including former Hillary Clinton adviser Zac Petkanas, have urged Biden not to “feel obligated to throw Trump a lifeline by granting him any debates at all” in the face of the president’s sinking poll numbers. Petkanas’ justification for such an act is that “this is not a normal presidential election and Trump is not a legitimate candidate.”
Others, meanwhile, claim that presidential debates have outlived their usefulness and no longer serve as a gauge of political acumen or ability.
“The debates have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership,” Elizabeth Drew, a noted author and political journalist, wrote in an op-ed published by the Times on Monday. “In fact, one could argue that they reward precisely the opposite of what we want in a president.”
The pressure comes as Biden has agreed to take part in only the customary three debates between the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates. Trump, who last year floated the idea of skipping the debates in general, has made an aggressive push for more debates and less-constrained rules. The president’s staff, in particular, has argued that decreasing the role of the debate moderators would give the candidates an opportunity to frankly discuss the most pressing issues facing the nation.
“Americans would like to have more than three 90-minute opportunities to watch their two-party nominees battle it out,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide to the Trump White House, said on Monday.
The prospect of additional debates has been a non-starter for Biden’s campaign, especially as some on the left are worried that even three debates could be potentially damaging to the former vice president’s White House ambitions. Most notably, many fear that if Biden’s penchant for gaffes resurfaces during the televised encounters, it could hurt the wide lead he has established over Trump in most polls.
Biden, himself, has not addressed that likelihood, instead choosing to remain optimistic. Last month, after a speech in Delaware, the former vice president told reporters that he could “hardly wait” to face Trump on the debate stage.