During “normal” presidential election years, it is the incumbent president who often employs a “Rose Garden strategy,” staying at the White House, to avoid being tripped up by the media and to lessen the chances of being betrayed by his own tongue. But with President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE in the White House, and the pandemic being tossed around like a political football, that time-tested scenario is being turned upside down.
With COVID-19 still infecting Americans, both Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push Protesters demonstrate outside Manchin's houseboat over opposition to reconciliation package Alabama eyes using pandemic relief funds on prison system MORE are curtailing their campaign schedules and the Republican and Democratic conventions out of caution. Yet it seems as if Biden will be the one forced into a virtual “Rose Garden strategy,” from the basement studio at his Delaware home, based upon that reality and some Democrats’ worries about his potential for gaffes.
Of the two candidates, Biden has been much less accessible, doing fewer interviews and hardly traveling, even deciding against a trip to Milwaukee to accept the party’s nomination. Although his staff cited the virus as the main reasons for this, there are also likely concerns about how he might engage with voters and media.
An example played out this week when Biden was asked during a panel discussion at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists whether he has taken a “cognitive test.” The question was posed by CBS reporter Errol Barnett, who cannot be accused of being in the tank for Trump.
Biden snapped at Barnett, saying: “No, I haven’t taken a test. Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man. That’s like saying you, before you got on this program, you take a test where you’re taking cocaine or not. What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?”
It was a curious response, to say the least.
Some in the media — left-leaning outlets, in particular — appear to be ignoring or burying the exchange. Yet it quickly went viral on social media and has been viewed by tens of thousands of people. How many likely voters are among those viewers should be a disturbing question for the Biden campaign.
Not only do Biden’s advisers worry about these types of verbal missteps by their candidate, but so do a number of Democrats who are desperate to beat Trump. That’s why we’re starting to hear a growing chorus of folks suggesting that Biden should not debate Trump; some are calling for the cancellation of debates entirely. As of now, the presidential debates are planned for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22.
Trump and his campaign, meanwhile, have gleefully begged for a fourth debate — an idea shot down by both the Biden campaign and the commission that runs the debates — but will Biden even participate in the three that are scheduled?
Biden’s campaign has insisted he’ll take part, yet some in the Democratic Party and in the media are warning against it.
Last week, Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary for Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHas China already won? Budget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE, wrote a piece for CNN, entitled: “Joe Biden Could Still Lose This Election.” In the essay, Lockhart urged Biden to skip the debates. His rationale was that it would be beneath Biden to debate a president such as Trump, “who can’t follow the rules or the truth.”
Interesting. Let’s imagine for a moment what Lockhart might say if his former boss, President Clinton — in the form of his 1992 and 1996 self — were the Democratic nominee instead. Knowing Clinton’s sharp mind and accomplished debating skills, I’m pretty sure Lockhart would be calling for more, and longer, debates.
But with Biden as the one going up against Trump, we also have prominent newspaper columnists cautioning against holding debates this year.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times tried his best to give Biden a plausible excuse to get out of the debates by saying he should withdraw unless Trump agrees to two demands — the first being to release his tax returns, and the second to endorse a real-time, fact-checking team during the debate.
Elizabeth Drew authored a column for the Times this week: “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.” In the column, Drew stressed, “This, by the way, isn’t written out of any concern that Donald Trump will prevail over Joe Biden in the debates.”
Really? In the world of Texas Hold’em, Drew’s line might be seen as “a tell.” Or, as Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet,” to reflect upon a bit of overacting: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
While the coronavirus has had a surreal effect on this presidential race — both on the party conventions and personal campaigning — Biden likely will be affected more than Trump. That’s because Biden is largely being forced into a virtual “Rose Garden strategy” from his home.
Some supporters may seek to provide him cover, but it’s a risky proposition. Because of the uncertain times we are experiencing, and the relatively advanced age of the candidates — both are in their 70s — voters probably want to hear directly from the two in an unfiltered format so that they can judge for themselves.
If Biden skips the debates, I’m predicting it will be “game, set and match” for Trump come November.
Douglas MacKinnon was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communication at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. He is the author of: “The Dawn of a Nazi Moon: Book One.”