Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks

Democratic senators say Joe Biden shouldn’t be afraid to debate President Trump in the fall, countering other party figures floating the idea that he should skip the debates given his polling advantage and not risk giving Trump a lifeline.

“We’ve had presidential debates for a long time now, and it’s been a way for a lot of people around the nation to be able to see the candidates in action,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is thought to be on Biden’s shortlist of potential running mates.

“I know that Joe Biden will show who he is, a man of both empathy and competence, and I’d like the American people to have a chance to see that,” she added.

Opinion pieces in recent days have criticized the tradition of presidential debates, some of them generally questioning their usefulness.

But Joe Lockhart, a prominent Democratic strategist and former White House spokesman for the Clinton administration, wrote in a CNN op-ed that “whatever you do, don’t debate Trump” and was more specific and pointed in his advice to the Biden campaign.

Lockhart wrote that Trump’s penchant for misleading statements means he is uniquely unsuited for the debate stage and that Biden, who polls show is ahead nationally and in key swing states, would be making a mistake in agreeing to the traditional three presidential debates.

“It’s a fool’s errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth,” Lockhart wrote, noting The Washington Post has chronicled more than 20,000 misleading and false statements made by Trump since he took office in 2017.

“Biden will undoubtedly take heat from Republicans and the media for skipping the debates. But it’s worth the risk as trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win,” Lockhart argued.

Biden’s campaign is brushing off the advice.

A Biden campaign spokesman said Monday that the former vice president looked forward to facing off with Trump on all three occasions set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Biden has already committed in writing to doing so, and his campaign also noted that it is Trump who has yet to formally commit in writing to participating in the debates. 

“Joe Biden said in June that he looks forward to debating Donald Trump on the dates and in the locations chosen by the Presidential Commission on Debates. We are still waiting for Donald Trump to agree to as much,” Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid response director, said in a statement.  

“Perhaps the President is afraid to be held accountable for his unprecedented and continuing failures of leadership during the worst public health crisis in generations, which has infected over 4.5 million Americans, cost over 150,000 lives, and leveled the strong economy Donald Trump inherited from the Obama-Biden Administration,” Bates continued.

Asked why the Trump campaign hadn’t formally committed to three debates, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement that Trump is “looking forward to debating Joe Biden.”

“Joe Biden is the only one who is being coy about showing up for debates, and he is the only one getting public advice from his supporters to dodge them,” Murtaugh said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who served for years with Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Biden shouldn’t shy away from a debate.

“This is a big race, and the answer is yes, I think he should,” she said.

But Feinstein doesn’t think Biden and Trump needs to square off three times, which has been the traditional number of presidential debates in recent years.

“I think one or two debates is sufficient,” she said. “I don’t see a long string of debates.”

“Biden has nothing to be ashamed of, and I think he will shine. I think his candidacy is about an alternative to Trump, and Joe represents that alternative. So I think he presents it well,” she added.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, “Joe Biden has nothing to fear from Donald Trump, even with all his lack of scruples and integrity.” 

“If Donald Trump lies, he could be called out by the moderator,” he said. “The press now has been ready to say there are some standards here, and I think that’s what the moderator would do.” 

“I think Biden is hardly one to shirk that kind of challenge,” he added. 

Candidates behind in the polls typically have more reasons to debate than those who are ahead, and the polls suggest a dire situation for Trump. Trump trails Biden by an average of 7 to 8 points in national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.

The president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was promoted last month in an effort to turn around the president’s struggling reelection campaign, on Monday called for the debates to be held sooner and for more of them to be put on the schedule.

“We want more debates. We want debates starting sooner. First debate is scheduled for Sept. 29. By that time, 16 states already will have voted. … That’s a concern to me. I want to see President Trump on the debate stage against Joe Biden,” Stepien said on “Fox & Friends.”

The Trump campaign has since June pressed for more than three debates and for an earlier calendar, as the president and campaign officials look to sow doubt about Biden’s mental fitness.

Discussion about Biden playing it safe by skipping the debates has caught the attention of some Democratic senators who say the rules may need to be negotiated to provide for live fact-checking by moderators.

And one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the party’s presumptive nominee should carefully consider whether it’s worth debating Trump.

“I’m really hoping that his advisers have a serious debate with him on whether he should or shouldn’t [participate in the debates,]” said the lawmaker. “I think that is a very legitimate for a campaign and his entire team to think about that question.”

The senator floated the idea of special rules “where you have fact checks after answers” or “a different kind of debate like the Lincoln-Douglas debates where you have a lengthy period to explain what your position is, which allows you to correct what your opponent says.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last month that Biden should debate Trump only if the president releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018 and if he agrees to a real-time fact-checking team hired by the Commission on Presidential Debates. 

But more Democratic senators are in favor of Biden challenging Trump on a debate stage.  

“The president dominates the news every single day, whether he is tweeting or debating. I don’t think you can try to stop the president from dominating the news,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I don’t think that not debating reduces the chances that the president is going to lie and have lots of people hear those lies.”

Murphy said that “everyone’s got to do a better job of fact-checking,” but he doesn’t view the debates as a potential game-changer the way some other Democrats do.

“I’m not as focused as much about the debates. I’m not sure this year the debates are going to change a lot of people’s minds. People’s opinions of this president are pretty baked in,” he said. 

Tags Chris Murphy Coronavirus COVID-19 Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden joe lockhart Presidential debates
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