Scarborough to Biden: Don't do any more debates if Trump can't behave

A bad idea, although Ed made a strong argument in his post earlier about why Team Joe might consider it. They’re up a touchdown and have possession of the ball with a minute left on the clock. In that situation, you don’t continue to run it because that’s what “the spirit of competition” requires. You kneel on it. Your only goal is to avoid turnovers. Doing the next two debates would be tantamount to running the ball twice.

But that strategy has problem. For one, Biden wasn’t so masterful last night that he erased all doubts in the minds of people who suspect he’s “lost a step.” If he pockets last night’s ugly victory and walks away, those doubts may hurt him at the polls. Also, for reasons I don’t understand, there are still many, many millions of people who believe things that Trump says, and if Biden ducked the final two debates Trump will happily spend the next five weeks accusing him of trying to hide his Alzheimer’s or whatever. Does that matter in a race where Biden’s winning comfortably? Nah, probably not. Does that matter in a race that tightens in the final few weeks due to unforeseen circumstances? Yeah, maybe.

And even if a turbo-charged “senility” attack chipped away at Biden’s lead without quite costing him the election, margins matter. Trump couldn’t have been clearer last night that he intends to contest the election if he loses no matter what the final vote looks like. If it’s a landslide, he’ll embarrass himself by doing so. If it’s close, 40 percent of the country will back him up. Biden’s task isn’t just to win, it’s to win convincingly, indisputably. The only way to undercut those turbo-charged attacks and deny fencesitters a reason to oppose him on grounds of mental competence is to keep showing them that he’s up to the job.

Bill Kristol and a hundred other pundits favorably disposed to Biden made the same case as Scarborough this morning: No more debates.

Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland was a disgrace because of the behavior of one man, Donald Trump. The interrupting and the bullying, the absence of both decency and dignity—those were Donald Trump’s distinctive contributions to the evening, and they gave the affair the rare and sickening character of a national humiliation.

There should be no more “debates.” For the sake of the country, Joe Biden should refuse to appear again on the same stage as Donald Trump. Biden can have weekly or twice weekly town halls, including with Trump supporters. He can do all manner of interviews and forums. He can make clear he’s happy to engage with the American public in all kinds of ways. But he should not put the nation through another ordeal like that.

The right strategy for Biden’s campaign comes down to this. Is it riskier for him to hand Trump a pretext to ramp up the senility attacks, which Trump will certainly do if Biden skips the second and third debates? Or is it riskier for him to stand on a stage and endure three more hours of Trump’s attacks? I say it’s the former, for this reason articulated by Guy Benson:

Finally, it seems to me that last night was a microcosm of the wider race. Here’s the dynamic: Biden wants the attention on Trump, and for his part, Trump cannot help but constantly remain the in-your-face center of attention. What Trump needed last night was for Biden to hurt himself in a real damaging “moment,” of which Biden is more than capable. But Trump didn’t give Biden any proverbial “rope” — time and space — with which to hang himself. He just couldn’t stop talking, interjecting, and jabbing, sucking up the oxygen at every turn. I can’t imagine Team Joe was too disappointed by that; it’s their whole strategy.

Precisely. In 2016, when Trump was asserting himself as the leader in the GOP primaries, then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski described his strategy as “Let Trump be Trump.” And that turned out to be the right approach for a populist Republican base. Trump was also Trump in the 2016 general election, which wasn’t as beneficial but which turned out not to be a crippling liability because the alternative was Hillary being Hillary. This year, though, Team Joe has borrowed a page from Lewandowski: Their strategy is also “Let Trump be Trump.” Hide in the basement, say as little as possible, and do the debates because Trump is certainly going to be Trump in front of an audience of 90 million people.

To be sure, Ed was right in his post when he said that Trump will adjust his approach in the second and third debates — campaign advisor Chris Christie all but guaranteed it last night — but he’s still Trump. He can only adjust so much. (And Biden will adjust his approach too, of course.) It reminds me of when the White House coronavirus briefings began this past spring. That was an opportunity to let Pence, Fauci, and Birx take the lead and show that his administration was competent and engaged. Within weeks, though, the lure of the spotlight led Trump to turn them into two-hour venting sessions in which he ranted about his enemies. By the end, he was breezily speculating about whether disinfectants might help cleanse the body of COVID.

He is who he is. He can probably restrain himself from interrupting Biden so often next time, but he’s always going to come off to people who don’t adore him like — well, like a “crackhead”:

I didn’t watch Luntz’s focus group but other terms used to describe Trump reportedly were “unhinged,” “arrogant,” “forceful,” a “bully,” “chaotic” and “un-American.” Which, again, is exactly Guy’s point. If Trump did himself more harm than good last night…

…and if he’s destined to do himself more harm than good because he can’t stop being Trump for 90 minutes, why shouldn’t Biden show up for debates two and three? Let Trump be Trump. Just let him talk. If I were Biden, I would actually pick up on the “crackhead” line from Luntz’s focus group and start using it as a joke to drive home the perceptions of last night’s debate. “Usually Americans go into the voting booth when an incumbent president’s on the ballot and ask themselves, ‘Am I better off now than I was four years ago?’ This year I want you to go into the voting booth and ask yourselves another question: ‘Do I like having a president who sounds like a crackhead on stage?'”

By the way, the CBS/YouGov poll from which the data above was taken had Biden “winning” the debate, 48/41, which isn’t a bad result for the president. It suggests, at least, that his base thought he won, which is probably the best-case scenario for him in the aftermath. If he didn’t gain any new votes, at least he didn’t lose any. CNN’s poll of debate-watchers had Biden ahead 60/28, though. I don’t think that means that Biden peeled any MAGA votes away, but it does strongly imply that the first debate — Trump’s single best opportunity of the campaign for an instant gamechanger — wasn’t a gamechanger.

There’s one more reason for Biden to stick with the debates. The next one on October 15th is a townhall forum in which the candidates get to interact with voters from Florida. That format should favor Biden for the simple reason that it’ll give him opportunities to empathize with people harmed by COVID and unemployment. Empathy is his strongest quality as a retail politician and Trump’s weakest. He should do that debate if only for that reason, to show voters that he feels their pain. If he does well then I think maybe the balance of equities will tip towards Ed’s position of him ducking the third debate. (“I have nothing more to prove.”)