With 98 percent certainty, this is just Team Joe and its allies within the party and the media enjoying a bit of “turnabout is fair play” at Republicans’ expense. Righties have spent months idly wondering if Slow Joe will find a reason to back out of the debates for fear of being exposed onstage as having lost his few remaining marbles. Now it’s the Bidenites’ turn to exploit yesterday’s Trump demand for a fourth debate, or an earlier first debate, as evidence that the president himself has cold feet.
Ninety-eight percent chance. There is, however, a one-percent chance that Trump genuinely doesn’t want to debate because, let’s face it, he’d be looking for a reason to back out if he were leading in the polls. “Why take a risk?” the president would say if he were leading 50/43 instead of vice versa. Trump maximizes his advantage in all situations irrespective of “norms.” If he were ahead, preserving his lead by finding a pretext to skip the debates would be to his advantage.
And here’s the thing: He’s deep enough in a yes-man cocoon that he might believe he is leading in the “real” polls right now. So, one-percent chance of that.
There’s also a one-percent chance that his advisors watched that Axios interview this week and the Chris Wallace interview a few weeks ago and concluded that the president does not, shall we say, “have the best words” anymore. If they’re convinced that he’d do himself more harm politically than good by matching up with Biden in front of the cameras then naturally they’d search for a pretext to back out. The race has tightened (slightly) lately. Maybe it’ll continue to tighten unless Trump inadvertently gives Biden a showcase to prove that he’s at least as fit for the job as Trump is.
But really, when you’re down seven, you have to run that risk. Trump will compete, even if Biden’s chief spokesman is hinting otherwise…
<whispers> they have not https://t.co/mr4G9sbtfX
— Kate Bedingfield (@KBeds) August 5, 2020
…and even if former Obama advisors are echoing the point…
I don’t think people are taking seriously enough the idea that it’s Trump who is desperately looking to get out of debates. If he were, it would look exactly like what he’s been doing—make tons of nonsense demands, and when he doesn’t get them, walk. He’s done it before, in fact. pic.twitter.com/of6XH4Fqgw
— Jesse Lee (@JesseCharlesLee) August 5, 2020
…and even if splashy features raising doubt are appearing in magazines like Vanity Fair:
In assessing which candidate is really trying to skirt the debates, it is probably more useful to consider what the respective campaigns have actually said, rather than the “public advice” of newspaper columnists and cable-news pundits. In December, Trump lashed out at the commission on Twitter, saying it was stacked with “Trump Haters” and “Never Trumpers.” Days later, Trump campaign advisers met with the commission, a bipartisan nonprofit group that has sponsored every debate since 1988, raising the possibility that the president may seek a forum organized by a different firm. Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the commission and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me in an interview that the group would consider a fourth debate if both campaigns agreed, but he acknowledged that it was unlikely, given Biden’s adherence to the original plan. “They know it’s not going anywhere with us,” Fahrenkopf said. “We’ve said very clearly that we’re sticking with our original plan that was proposed last year.”
Whether Trump sticks to that plan remains an elusive question. Murtaugh did not respond directly to my inquiries on whether the president will participate in the three established debates regardless of whether there is a fourth, or whether the selection of moderators will have any bearing on his decision. Fahrenkopf said the commission will likely announce which news anchors will moderate the debates in the first week of September. Could the inclusion of someone from CNN, NBC, or any of the other outlets Trump repeatedly maligns as “fake news” be enough to keep him off stage? “You know, I think that’s a possibility,” former CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer told me in an interview this week. Schieffer, who moderated presidential debates in 2004, 2008, and 2012, said that Trump’s ever-shifting positions make it difficult to predict one way or another. “My guess is we’ll see him threaten not to take part some place along the way, but whether he will or not, I think we’ll find out the night they have the debate,” Schieffer said.
This morning Giuliani went as far as to call for the abolition of the debate commission if they don’t accept his demand for an earlier debate or a fourth one:
On Fox & Friends, Rudy Giuliani says the Commission on Presidential Debates should be abolished if they refuse the Trump campaign's request to add a fourth debate or move the first one up. pic.twitter.com/OANirPptBQ
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) August 6, 2020
I made the case last night that agreeing to an early debate would be in Biden’s interest in certain ways, although less so in others — specifically, if he had a terrible debate at the start of September, before early voting began, it could cost him many votes that would otherwise be banked for him if instead the first debate were held at the end of September, as is currently scheduled. Team Biden seems to have decided that it’s not worth the risk. “We have said all along, including in a letter to the commission in June, that Joe Biden will appear on the dates that the commission selected and in the locations they chose,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates yesterday in response to Giuliani’s demand. “Donald Trump has not, continually trying to insert his choice of friendly moderators, now including one who just published an op-ed offering ‘the case’ for Trump’s reelection.”
If Biden’s sticking to the dates that he’s already agreed to, with the first debate on September 29, then it’s Trump’s move. He can either capitulate and drop his demand or back out. Backing out is unthinkable since it would forfeit his last best chance to turn the race around and explode MAGA Nation’s talking point that Biden’s a drooling imbecile who’ll surely be exposed before the cameras by the president’s steel-trap mind. The cynical take on why Trump and Giuliani made their demand is that they thought there was at least a small chance Biden might go for it and that, if he didn’t, it’d become another thing they could point to after the election as “proof” that the president was cheated somehow. “He would have won if not for all the mail-in ballots. And the fake-news media’s vendetta against him. And the refusal of Biden and the commission to agree to debates before early voting started.” Trump will show up. He’s just looking to cultivate a new grievance for his fans.
I think there’s a less cynical possibility too. Trump fancies himself a supremely skilled negotiator and might just be putting on a show of “negotiating” with Biden and the committee before ultimately capitulating. He has no leverage to make demands, as he needs the debates at this point more than Biden does. But being a realtor by trade, he feels obliged to always come to the table complaining about unfairness and insisting upon major concessions in hopes that the final deal will end up being a tiny bit more favorable to him. As it is, Biden and the commission have made him a “take it or leave it” offer. What’ll he do?