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NYT op-ed: C'mon, let's cancel the presidential debates

Nonsense. The piece is correct in its central claim, that the debates have devolved into a silly spectacle that are scored based on quips, gotchas, and soundbites. There’s no engagement between the two sides on ideas; there really aren’t “ideas” at all. There are simulacra of ideas in the form of bullet-point policy proposals to be dutifully recited and then discarded upon first contact with Congress once in office. It’s a reality show for the reality-show age, one with unusually high dramatic stakes because of the unusually high political stakes.

But neither side has an incentive to back out. The opposite, really. For either, backing out would be a disaster.

Free advice for Democrats: You do your guy no favors by raising this possibility publicly.

The debates have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership. In fact, one could argue that they reward precisely the opposite of what we want in a president. When we were serious about the presidency, we wanted intelligence, thoughtfulness, knowledge, empathy and, to be sure, likability. It should also go without saying, dignity…

Over time, the debates came to resemble professional wrestling matches, and more substantive debates were widely panned in the press. Points went to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks drew laughs from the audience and got repeated for days and remembered for years…

This, by the way, isn’t written out of any concern that Donald Trump will prevail over Joe Biden in the debates; Mr. Biden has done just fine in a long string of such contests. The point is that “winning” a debate, however assessed, should be irrelevant, as are the debates themselves.

Trump won’t support canceling the debates. If the current polling were reversed, with the president sitting on a seven-point lead over Biden, he probably would. In fact, there were reports within the past year, before the pandemic, alleging that he was mulling whether to back out due to concerns about “unfairness.” But even if he were ahead, it’d be hard for him to say no. It’s not “norms” that would give him pause, as he doesn’t care that presidents running for reelection are expected to debate. Trump does what’s best for him, norms be damned.

It’s the thought of missing out on a gigantic TV audience, one bigger than even most other mega-famous people will ever enjoy. How do you ask a narcissist of Trump’s magnitude to pass on a chance to be watched by 80 million people? If it’s true that, for him, power is a means towards attention rather than vice versa then one might assume that getting to participate in one of the biggest television shows in history is the reason he wanted to be president. He won’t skip a production like that even if it’s in his electoral interest to do so.

In any event, he has no choice. Trailing by seven points in the polls, he needs every opportunity he can seize to alter the course of the election. The debates are his best chance to change a lot of minds all at once.

Biden won’t support canceling the debates either. Seth Mandel is correct:

Biden backing out would be the biggest unforced error of his campaign, first and most basically by confounding his message that he’ll restore presidential norms to the office. If he’s dodging debates, that’s an early clue that he’s less beholden to norms than he claims. Worse, because of voters’ worries about his age, backing out would turbo-charge suspicions that he’s not up to the job and has taken to trying to hide his unfitness from voters. That would do more to convince people that he lacks the mental focus for the presidency than showing up and having a couple of mediocre debates would, unless he ends up drooling on himself mid-answer during one of them.

Besides, Trump and Team MAGA have set the bar so low for Biden that even if he did drool on himself, you might have some viewers come away thinking, “Honestly, I thought he’d drool more.” I have Trumpers in my own family who are convinced that the president will Destroy — capital “D” Destroy — Biden once they go head-to-head. Why they believe that I don’t know, particularly in light of how well TrumpWorld has set Biden up to “overperform” by simply getting through the events without falling down. It’s not as if Trump is a commanding presence when debating policy either. He’s been so vague and evasive about his plans for health-care reform, both lately and since he became a candidate, that the media has begun treating it as a sort of gag. (“We’re signing a health-care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health-care plan,” he told Chris Wallace, ah, two weeks ago.) He’s taken credit, repeatedly, for a program begun by Obama. He’s started rambling lately in interviews about the details of the cognitive tests he’s taken. It’s not going to be “Firing Line” when he and Biden engage.

It’s easy to imagine Biden losing his train of thought mid-answer (more than once) or stammering awkwardly at times, as he’s had a stutter since he was a kid. That could hurt him. But in terms of whether he or Trump is apt to speak more fluently on policy, with more granular detail, at the debates, there’s no question that Biden will. It seems like 50 lifetimes ago in our pandemic dystopia, but Biden debated Bernie Sanders one-on-one as recently as mid-March and did perfectly well enough to cruise to the nomination. At this point he’s been taunted by Republicans about his mental acuity so relentlessly that he might be inclined to show up for the first debate even if he had an excuse to back out, just to prove that he’s got what it takes.

But he doesn’t have an excuse. The debates are happening, not because they’re useful but because they’re what’s expected. Sometimes in politics that’s enough.