Opinion: Be careful what you wish for, Mr. President

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Trump and his team seem confident that the debates will help the President, who has been flailing in the polls. They justified the request by arguing that the debates would be rendered useless if millions of Americans have the ability to vote by mail before the first face-off takes place in late September.
“Move the First Debate up. A debate, to me, is a Public Service. Joe Biden and I owe it to the American People!” Trump tweeted on Thursday. How ironic that the President is suddenly concerned about public service after his numerous attacks on mail-in voting.
The commission rejected the Trump campaign’s argument on Thursday, saying voters could very well wait to watch one or more debates before sending in their ballots. While the commission said, “the three 90-minute debates work well to fulfill the voter education purposes,” it would consider granting the request if both candidates agreed to it.
To be sure, there is good reason for Biden — and all Americans — to be leery of the debates. As former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart wrote, “It’s a fool’s errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth.”

Given Trump’s track record with presidential debates, each encounter will likely turn into some mashup of professional wrestling, reality television and presidential politics. Biden will likely conduct himself in the way that candidates have since John F. Kennedy met Richard Nixon in 1960 — and attempt to outline key policy positions while embodying the gravitas of a president. But his efforts will inevitably be overshadowed by the chaos standing 6 feet or more away from him.

That doesn’t mean the debates are not important. Americans still need the opportunity to see the presidential candidates in the intense, live setting that a debate provides. They deserve to see how the two men face challenging questions — and how they handle the pressure of being attacked by their opponent. Being able to respond quickly with a well-delivered zinger is, for better or worse, a relevant part of being a president these days.

While the debates are unlikely to provide the kind of substantive policy discussions some Americans yearn for, they remain our best opportunity to see the contrast between Trump and Biden. Even though the debates will include countless well-rehearsed one-liners, the performances provide useful insight into each leader. When candidate Trump lurked behind Hillary Clinton in 2016 or insulted his fellow Republicans during the primary debates, he revealed his true colors.

That’s not to say the debates can’t be improved — and the pandemic might provide an opportunity to do so. If infection rates continue to increase, it’s unlikely there will be a live audience. Candidates won’t be able to feed off the cheers or jeers that often make the debates feel like live sporting events.

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One way the commission can make sure the debates are fair and substantive is to carefully choose the moderators. It’s telling that Trump’s campaign has released a list of suggested moderators that includes right-wing pundits and Fox News personalities who would likely go easy on him. The commission should thoroughly vet reporters who are prepared to ask tough questions, follow up when a candidate fails to answer, and set the facts straight in the face of misleading responses. The moderators must also do their part to choose topics that cover a broad range of issues voters care about, so the American people can get a clear sense of how each candidate would handle the biggest crises facing the nation.

The debates will be more important than ever this year, since the two candidates will have fewer opportunities to interact with voters on the campaign trail as a result of the pandemic. But Trump should ultimately be careful of what he wishes for. As anyone who has seen his interviews with Fox News’ Chris Wallace or Jonathan Swan of Axios knows, it’s clear why the President prefers his campaign rallies over one-on-one Q&As — he does not fare well when challenged. A debate would provide Biden, who has largely remained out of the spotlight, an opportunity to take Trump to task for myriad issues the President may have trouble defending.

Of course, Biden is not always the smoothest on camera. He had many rough moments during the primary debates, often fumbling his words or appearing uneasy with the fast pace of the conversation. But the truth is, he doesn’t have to say that much. This is a scenario where Biden can be brief and on point, and then let Trump be Trump.

If the polls are any indication, Trump’s interviews and coronavirus news briefings have done little to help his chance at reelection. If the nation faces a second wave of Covid-19 cases this fall, Trump’s televised antics will only remind the country of his failure to adequately contain the virus, which has placed an unprecedented strain on millions of Americans.

So, despite Trump’s plea, the odds are that even if Biden slips up and makes a gaffe or two, another 90-minute debate won’t help the President, whose track record includes four years of chaos and incompetence.



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