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EDITORIAL: Joe Biden should commit to presidential debates

Joe Biden famously ran a basement campaign during his successful 2020 presidential bid. But he emerged to participate in two debates with his opponent, Donald Trump. Will he agree to share the stage this fall? He’d better.

Last week, five major TV networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox — sent a joint letter to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump urging the two presumptive major party nominees “to publicly commit to participating in general election debates” leading up to the November election.

“General election debates have a rich tradition in our American democracy,” the group wrote. “There is simply no substitute for the candidates debating with each other, and before the American people, their visions for the future of our nation.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates — a vehicle that the Democratic and Republican parties created four decades ago to sponsor, produce and monopolize the presidential debates — has scheduled three such gatherings for Sept. 16, Oct. 1 and Oct. 9. But whether both candidates will show — and whether any third party hopefuls will be invited — remains unclear.

Mr. Trump, for his part, insists he’s rarin’ to go and will debate Mr. Biden “anytime, anywhere, anyplace.” If only he’d embraced the same attitude during the GOP primaries. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has played it coy. In March, he told reporters that he was open to the idea, but that the decision to debate Mr. Trump “depends on his behavior,” whatever that means.

Critics have increasingly maintained that the debates — held in every presidential election year since 1976 — have outlived their usefulness and devolved into raucous shouting matches involving partisan talking points rather than thoughtful give-and-take. But this misses the point. Modern political campaigns now attempt to “control the message” through social media and interviews with friendly news outlets. Debates have become even more important because they help voters assess candidates in a more freewheeling environment.

Debates “introduce candidates to the public,” Jennifer Tiedemann, executive editor of Discourse magazine at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, noted in a January op-ed for The Hill. “They allow voters to size up candidates and compare ideas, issue stances, personalities and temperaments with the goal of helping them make informed decisions at the ballot box.”

Mr. Biden is the president of the United States. “More than any president in recent memory, Mr. Biden, 80, has taken steps to reduce opportunities for journalists to question him in forums where he can offer unscripted answers and they can follow up,” The New York Times reported last year. Questions about his mental acuity hang over his re-election. He owes it to the American people to commit to the debate process, no strings attached.

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