My instinct when Trump announced that he was backing out of the virtual townhall debate this morning was that Biden should insist the show must go on, whether or not the president attends.
I still think that’s the better strategy, frankly, although Team Joe’s preferred plan has its virtues too.
Here was Biden when asked about Trump backing out a few hours ago. You never know what the president will do because he changes his mind from one moment to the next, he says, which is true. Witness the bizarre on-again-off-again stimulus negotiations this week.
“We don’t know what the president’s going to do; he changes his mind every second," Joe Biden says of President Trump asserting that he won't participate in virtual debate. Biden made the comments before his flight to Phoenix for campaign events Thursday. pic.twitter.com/lQh7mEANR6
— NBC Politics (@NBCPolitics) October 8, 2020
That was Biden’s way of punting on the issue until he and his team could confer and come up with a proper response. The result:
New statement from the Biden campaign on the debate: "As a result, Joe Biden will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on October 15th, as he has done on several occasions in recent weeks." pic.twitter.com/Al2S9pIVM0
— Matt Berman (@Mr_Berman) October 8, 2020
If Trump was bluffing about not doing the second debate, he’ll either have to follow through now by skipping it or look terribly weak.
I thought the Biden campaign would insist on holding the town hall event as scheduled on October 15th just because of the optics. *If* the event was carried across all broadcast and cable news networks, as is standard for presidential debates, then Biden would have a massive audience all to himself. And it would be in a format conducive to him — interacting with everyday Americans, where he can show empathy. Trump’s absence would look terrible in context, visual evidence of his petulance. And it would give a guy who’s been hiding in his basement for most of the campaign an opportunity to claim that he, not Trump, is the one who’s willing to work harder for Americans’ votes by showing up to an event that 50 million people or whatever planned to watch.
It would also provide ample opportunity for him to remind viewers that the virtual format was made necessary in the first place because of Trump’s own negligence in preventing an outbreak that’s now infected 34 people and counting, including the president himself.
All of that made a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach to the debate appealing for Biden. But there were drawbacks too. A Trump-less non-debate “debate” probably won’t draw much of a TV audience. The debate commission might not even have been willing to sponsor the event without both candidates there. And of course there’s risk in Biden accepting voters’ questions for a full two hours or whatever instead of the hour or so he’d get to speak as one-half of a debate with Trump. The longer he has to speak, the higher the risk of a major mistake. Maybe all of that put Team Joe off of the idea.
Their proposal has its own virtues. October 22nd is the date currently scheduled for the third debate between Biden and Trump; what the Biden campaign is suggesting, essentially, is canceling debate two and using a townhall format for debate three instead. That helps them in two ways. First, because Biden’s up big at the moment, the safe play is to seize any opportunity to avoid a debate. If he did the townhall debate solo, he probably wouldn’t gain much from it but might hurt himself by giving an awkward answer to a question about, say, Court-packing. When you’re up 10 points and you have the ball with only a few minutes left, you call the safest play you have. In this case, that’s accepting Trump’s invitation to cancel the second debate instead of doing it solo.
Second, insisting that the townhall format be used for the third debate plays to Biden’s strengths *and* makes it feasible that that debate will be done in person, which works better for a candidate who’s good at empathy and worse for a candidate who isn’t. Trying to feel people’s pain remotely, in a Zoom-style exchange, was destined to prove a bit awkward. By the 22nd, Trump will hopefully be virus-free and the virtual set-up will no longer be needed. Plus, if Trump turns around and says that he won’t do a townhall, only a traditional one-on-one debate, that’s an opening for Biden to say “no way, it’s a townhall or nothing. We need to hear from the people!” Either Trump will cave and give Biden the format he wants or Trump will refuse, in which case Biden gets to walk away from the third debate as well. Which would be tantamount to a team that’s ahead getting to kneel on the ball in the waning seconds of the game.
Frankly, I wonder if Team Trump has been looking for an excuse to bail out of the debates. Normally one would never encourage a candidate that’s down big to forgo an opportunity at a gamechanging event, but Trump seems to have done himself so much damage in the first debate polling-wise that skipping the rest might be prudent. Roger Stone urged him to skip the second debate in an op-ed yesterday, in fact, complaining of bias by the debate commission. But in reality he probably calculated that Trump would inevitably be asked lots of uncomfortable questions about the outbreak at the White House, why he didn’t take more precautions, why he thinks he might be “immune” or “cured” by the Regeneron antibody drug and other unnerving things he’s said over the last few days, etc. For Senate Republicans, denying Trump a chance to make a bad electoral situation worse by riffing in front of a gigantic national audience may be the least bad option right now.
Ironically, a virtual debate might have been the format best-suited to preventing that by saving him from some of his most self-sabotaging excesses:
My warm to the touch take: A virtual debate would be better for Trump than Biden. It would prevent Trump from interrupting Biden when Biden's hurting himself and would impose discipline on Trump that would artificially make him seem more restrained.
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) October 8, 2020
Here’s Pete Buttigieg, who played Pence in debate prep for Harris, making the point this morning that other Americans have had to put up with virtual work, so why shouldn’t Trump? That’s a recurring theme with Democrats down the stretch. The public was asked to wear masks — but Trump usually declined. The public was asked not to hold large gatherings — but the White House threw Amy Coney Barrett a big party and, it turns out, Mark Meadows threw his daughter a large wedding back in May in Atlanta even though Georgia prohibited gatherings of over 10 people at the time. Now Trump doesn’t want do a Zoom debate even though millions of people are forced to reluctantly use Zoom for work or school. Trump got elected as a populist but the White House’s view seems to be that pandemic precautions are for the little people.
It's too bad Trump is afraid to debate next week. pic.twitter.com/4juvdgPfE7
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) October 8, 2020
Update: Ah, and here’s the response from the Trump campaign. They’re on for October 22nd — but now they want the third debate moved to October 29th, just five days before Election Day.
UPDATE: Trump campaign agrees to Biden proposal to pushing the second debate to October 22 and a third debate on October 29 pic.twitter.com/Nbc0oLnmNj
— Sara Cook (@saraecook) October 8, 2020
I’ll wager right here that Team Biden’s answer is no, we’re not giving you a chance at a last-second gamechanger with a third debate. If you want three debates then show up for the Zoom debate on the 15th and we’ll do the third one on the 22nd. If you don’t want to do a Zoom debate, we do the third debate as a townhall on the 22nd and then we’re done. Debating Trump on the 29th would be especially risky for Biden since, if Trump is still down big in the final week of the race, his desperation may be such at that point hat he’d be willing to say anything on camera to try to damage him. I’d be shocked if they agree to do anything after the 22nd.
Update: I won my wager.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Biden campaign rejects Trump proposal to move date of 3rd debate.
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) October 8, 2020
Update: Looks like the second debate really is off. Biden just scheduled his own town hall event with ABC for that evening instead. It’s no coincidence that it came together so quickly, I’m sure. Team Joe didn’t want to give Trump a chance to change his mind and agree to do the Zoom debate that night after all. If he wants to squander his few remaining opportunities to change the trajectory of the race, they’re happy to take advantage. Now Biden’s booked elsewhere and can’t do it even if Trump decides otherwise.
JUST IN: @ABC News will host a town hall with @JoeBiden moderated by @GStephanopoulos on October 15th. The primetime event will take place in Philadelphia where the former vice president will answer questions from voters. pic.twitter.com/7IPzdqK9Sx
— ABC News (@ABC) October 8, 2020