Biden: Maybe we should cancel next debate if Trump's still contagious

As excuses go, this one’s … not bad at all. Joe Biden may or may not be looking for a pretext to ditch the remaining two presidential debates, but one person still contagious with a pandemic virus ain’t exactly a pretext. In fact, it should be more or less assumed that anyone with an active and contagious COVID-19 infection doesn’t belong at a presidential debate, even if they’re a candidate.

These days, though, nothing can be left unsaid:

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden told reporters while boarding a plane to Delaware from Maryland on Tuesday that next week’s presidential debate should be canceled if President Trump is still positive for COVID-19.

“I think if he still has COVID, then we shouldn’t have a debate,” Biden said Tuesday evening. …

Biden’s comments come one day after he told reporters that he’d listen to what the experts say to determine whether it’s safe for him to face off next week in Miami against the president in the second of three scheduled debates with Trump.

“I’ll do whatever the experts say is appropriate for me to do,” Biden told reporters as he boarded a flight Monday to campaign in the battleground state of Florida. “Listen to the science. If scientists say that it’s safe…then I think that’s fine.”

So it doesn’t look like Biden wants an exit from the debates, or at least not enough to just simply say that it’s too short a time from Trump’s hospitalization to be safe. And it might be, as normally that would require some recuperation and isolation to ensure that the COVID infection has subsided and is no longer producing active viruses in expiration. Trump left the hospital pretty quickly too, choosing to recuperate at the White House, which means the clock may not yet have started on post-infection isolation. It’s a close call, and one can hardly fault a 77-year-old man for erring on the side of caution, especially when the 74-year-old man on stage keeps choosing the side of risk.

This all leads to another question, however, with bigger implications. Why does the debate have to be in one place? We’re Zooming everywhere now, from kindergartens to Congress. (Yes, I’m aware of that redundancy.) If Trump feels up to a debate but there is a question about his contagious status, why not just do a teleconference debate? It would be tougher to adopt the town-hall format that the Commission on Presidential Debates — not impossible, but perhaps less useful. The debate matters more than the format, however, and in 2020, a teleconference meeting is hardly exotic. And that way, no one’s contagion impacts anyone else.

That does have one other potential virtue — a handy way to cut microphones. As anyone who manages Zoom meetings knows, the manager has the ability to mute participants. This is very helpful when barking dogs or side conversations override another speaker. By agreeing that the mics won’t come on until after the question is asked, and then only for one candidate at a time, the interruptions can be quashed before they begin. Voila! Suddenly, we can have a coherent debate, if a less entertaining one in the gladiatorial sense. That power could be abused, but if the rules were set up for specific periods of response for each candidate, it might make the flow more equal and fair.

Trump will likely push for an in-person town hall, of course, as he likes retail campaigning. But this isn’t a bad back-up plan, and under the circumstances, should be considered Plan A until we know more about the arc of Trump’s recovery.

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