Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Case for Presidential Debates - Now More Than Ever

Debates are one of the great traditions of American elections. Having been involved in some 35 congressional elections in 25 states over my 43-year career, I've been involved in dozens of them. I negotiated debate formats with opposing campaigns and media organizations. I prepped and peppered candidates with issues and questions. And I even played a Democratic opponent for one incumbent US Senator's debate prep session (that was fun). 

Americans value debates. Since the 1980 election, between 37 million (Dole vs. Clinton) and 80 million (Reagan vs. Carter) Americans have tuned into presidential debates. Americans like to contrast and compare candidates and see their options contrasted before their eyes. This election's Democratic primary debates drew upwards of 20 million eyes, at least on one occasion.

There haven't always been debates. In 1972, incumbent President Richard Nixon famously refused to give a platform to his anti-war Democratic challenger, US Sen. George McGovern (D-SD). Nixon's campaign did not want to give McGovern, whom he consistently led by double-digits in nearly every poll throughout an election that was never in doubt. Nixon carried every state but one - even McGovern's home state.  

But debates aren't just for voters. Candidates use them - or not - to advance strategic and tactical objectives. My friend, Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute, penned a terrific Facebook post recently outlining debate objectives over the years. 

"Reagan had to demonstrate that he was not a warmonger, which he did in his 1980 debate with Carter, and this made Americans much more comfortable with him as President. He also had to demonstrate that he was not senile in a second debate after flubbing an answer against Mondale. Clinton needed to show he had the foreign policy credentials to compete with the greatly experienced President George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush needed to demonstrate he was a competent governor and more than just a President's son against Al Gore. Obama introduced himself to the American public with his successful debates against Hillary Clinton, and then strong performances against McCain. Obama, however, badly needed a better second and third debate (along with a little help from Candy Crowley) after being dramatically outclassed by Romney in their first debate."
 A recent Rasmussen Reports poll says that 38% of Americans polled think Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has dementia, including 20% of Democrats (48% percent disagree). (Rasmussen was one of the most prescient pollsters in 2016, with its somewhat unique blend of online and phone polling of likely voters, and deserves to be taken very seriously). 

So you think that the Biden campaign and his supporters would want him to debate Trump to demonstrate that he's not in the grips of cognitive decline, and reinforce his calm, approachable demeanor. But you would be wrong. Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart - who also handled the NFL's PR from 2016-18 (how did that work out?) - along with the New York Times' Elizabeth Drew are aggressively advocating for Biden not to participate in debates. Why? Because "Trump lies," exclaimed Lockhart. Drew, who was a debate moderator in past years, says basically that debates don't really tell us anything, and they're nothing more than quip contests and wrestling matches. Expect more of these trial balloons in days and weeks ahead.

Fortunately, Veep Biden's wife, Dr. Jill Biden, says Joe will debate. Good for her. But we'll see.

The Wall Street Journal expertly opined on the need for Joe Biden to participate in debates this fall:
"...Mr. Biden would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest President in history on Day 1. Mr. Trump is all but calling him senile, and Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries. How about when Mr. Biden mistakenly referred to Britain’s leader as Margaret Thatcher, who resigned in 1990? Or when he boasted of working on the Paris climate deal with Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997?
The public deserves to see how well Mr. Biden holds up under debate pressure while hearing his answers to pointed questions about his policy proposals. If he ducks debates, voters will have every right to conclude that his handlers are trying to protect him from doubts about his cognitive capacity.
If the debates seem too much like an endless succession of sound bites, that’s an argument for changing their format and pushing for longer and deeper answers, not axing them—especially not in 2020. Mr. Biden portrays Mr. Trump as a bumbling incompetent, a racist, and a liar. If he believes that, he should be willing to repeat his accusations face to face."
So let's hope the Commission on Presidential Debates' plans for three debates in October - the 7th, the 15th, and the 22nd - go forward as proposed. President Trump has called for a fourth debate, but that's unlikely to happen. Whether they will or not may depend less on the candidates or the Commission, but the universities that are pegged to host - if they wriggle out of the debates over phony concerns over COVID, we know the fix is in, and that will be the approach one or more will take, under pressure. If I were a Biden operative strongly opposed to putting my enfeebled candidate on stage against a voracious Trump, that's how I'd orchestrate it. 

Biden pays a price, in my opinion, if he is perceived as ducking debates. It will confirm people's worst fears, especially if he continues to stumble in his basement media interviews, as he did again today

More importantly, we as voters deserve to know whether at age 78 - close to the age where cognitive decline is a reality in most Americans - he is mentally (and physically) up to the world's most demanding job. Remember, too, that Joe has a history of aneurysms, but not recently. 

If there was ever an election where debates were really important, it is this one.

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