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EDITORIAL: Surprise: Liberals urge Joe Biden to skip the debates

Updated August 4, 2020 - 9:16 pm

As they say, if you didn’t see this coming, you really haven’t been paying attention.

Listen carefully off in the distance. That drumbeat you hear in progressive circles is getting louder. The message is clear: Joe Biden shouldn’t bother to participate in the presidential debates.

The rationalizations are varied, but the trial balloon has taken to the sky. A recent New York Times op-ed by long-time liberal political journalist Elizabeth Drew argues that the presidential debates should be scrapped because they have for too long rewarded the sound bite and ear-catching quip rather than serious policy prescriptions. But as the Wall Street Journal noted, that may be cause to alter the debate format, but it’s hardly a serious reason to deny voters the information they may glean from watching the candidates think on their feet.

A more revealing take appeared last week on CNN’s website and featured former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart arguing that Mr. Biden should duck the debates because appearing onstage with Donald Trump would add legitimacy to the president’s many “false statements.” Mr. Lockhart was echoing, in part, a June commentary by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who argued that Mr. Biden should skip the debates unless the president agrees to release his tax returns and sanctions a “real-time” fact checking team to monitor comments during the events.

A cynic might suggest that this new attitude signals a more overt nervousness in Democratic circles about Mr. Biden’s ability to hold up under the spotlight. After all, his campaign strategy for months has been to avoid unfriendly media and to lay low in order to limit his penchant for verbal gaffes. It’s also worth noting that the Democratic Party put on 11 debates during the primaries, some featuring dozens of candidates. But suddenly, debates are now too old school. Move along, nothing to see here.

In fact, such forums are even more important this unusual election cycle. The coronavirus has killed the traditional party conventions and will greatly curtail campaigning and voter outreach for both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Televised debates, in which both candidates are on the same stage, answering the same questions, will likely prove highly valuable to undecided and independent voters.

Voters will be free to reach their own conclusions if Mr. Biden opts not to show up at any of the three scheduled debates. What will that say about his candidacy? The ensuing whispers will be warranted.

If Mr. Biden does indeed opt to remain in hiding rather than take the stage with the president, the Commission on Presidential Debates should invite any third party candidate who has ballot access in a majority of states to fill the void. That might get the Biden camp’s attention.

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