Amidst a pandemic with no end in sight, Trump’s obfuscation and viral fibs have prompted a number of liberals to call for the cancellation of the presidential debates. They argue that engaging with a pathological liar on national television amounts to an exercise in futility.
As enticing as the thought of not having to witness President Trump slobber all over our norms may sound, this prevailing belief is deeply misguided.
I’ve spent the past few weeks combing through the past eight debate cycles, which included Obama’s tussles with McCain and Romney, Al Gore’s lock box, Reagan’s annihilation of Mondale, (Bill) Clinton taking down the elder Bush, and Jimmy Carter standing quietly as Ford shoots himself in the foot. And yes, the last set of presidential debates between HRC and DJT.
It’s clear these debates are a far cry from the 1858 matchups between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas cherished by many debate purists. In only one debate (President Obama and Mitt Romney’s first debate) was there any prolonged wonky discussion about policy. Nonetheless, I have come to appreciate that these reality TV zinger fests are an important and critical part of our political process. Liberals should embrace them.
Make no mistake, participating in these debates is a strategic necessity for Joe Biden. Aside from white collar political hobbyists, most Americans don’t pay close attention to the election until after Labor Day. With less than 80 days left in this race, current polls show roughly 14% of American voters remain undecided. The former Vice President must do just enough to shed his frail image and sway enough undecided voters to lock down the election. “Presidential elections are popularity contests. Oftentimes, whoever is smoother and more at ease in these debates wins (the election).” Historian John Dickerson noted.
These debates do move the polls. Historically, a third of these voters decide based on the debates. Many historians argued it was Michael Dukakis’ poor debate performance that spelled the eventual doom of his campaign. Presidents Reagan and Obama all but locked up the remaining undecided voters and election after both of their set of debates. If Uncle Joe can persuade most of that cohort, then he’ll likely move back to DC.
The Biden campaign also has an opportunity to dismantle any nefarious liberal preconceptions or pejorative beliefs that accompany any Democratic nominee in 2020: the snowflaking, the perception they are anti-police and anti-religion, and the campus culture that drowns out opposing voices. Biden can tout his history of being universally empathetic, his bipartisan record, and his ability to be big enough to entertain opposing different viewpoints without getting offended (something his opponent is not capable of). Barack Obama did this convincingly against John McCain.
These debates also offer an opportunity to break through our ideological echo chambers. Most individuals watch the news through a prism of slanted coverage. Pundits can edit footage. It is a unique opportunity to have these two men in the same room speak with (at) each other in front of the nation. This is something Ronald Reagan excelled at in both debates. He clearly overshadowed Mondale in their verbal jousts and he had one of the most memorable comebacks in presidential debate history.
In fact, it will be the first time these two were near each other since Trump’s inauguration. Mr. Biden can quickly denounce any (all) of the lies President Trump is likely to hurl at him.
And the lies will be plenty. The current President is a bullshit artist who traffics in deceit and props up hate and anger. One of Trump’s greatest political strengths is to spin a web of lies, speak erratically, shapeshift a false narrative, and have his rivals get sucked into his vortex of disgraceful behavior.
Many believe his bloviating and hyperbole can be neutralized with more bloviating and hyperbole. One of the biggest mistakes liberals make is believing that skirting norms and behaviors to counter his undercutting of norms and behaviors will be enough to get their message out. That mocking him or believing they are above him will diminish his stature. This was a calculated error Secretary Clinton made when she debated Mr. Trump in 2016.
That is why it is even more crucial to hold these Presidential debates. Wanting to cancel debates is, in fact, xeroxing a Trump move. Bending rules that have been long been established because they’re inconvenient is a Trump move. Believing you are above political norms is classic POTUS 45. Undermining a valuable tradition is pure DJT. Narrowing the avenues of exchange is straight out of this Commander in Chief’s playbooks. And attempting to change things at the last minute is the quintessential Trump power play.
Presidential campaigns have also always been about navigating the shifts in culture. Professing and advocating for what kind of cultural current we want to navigate through. Do we want to trek down one familiar path or pivot away from the status quo? As historian Jon Meacham notes, “These elections are usually very little about policy, and more about what kind of environment we want to live in for the next four years.”
In every election cycle we attempt to untangle and confront key cultural shifts deep in the marrow of America. Reagan wanted to usher a more dominant version of America where wealth and freedom to accumulate wealth was valued over everything else. Bill Clinton’s campaigns turned away from Reagan’s version of America and converged around a calmer way of living life. Obama looked to move past George W. Bush’s hawkish aggression and monolithic understanding of the electorate to showcase a more diverse and optimistic look at the American story.
This year Joe Biden is running on the importance of preserving the soul of our nation. Hoping that morality and decency outweigh a dangerous strain of nationalism emerging in our country.
There are many cultural challenges we face: American society continues to struggle with how deepening and deafening political silos have become. We grapple with how global and cosmopolitan we should be (i.e. the urban v. rural debate). We are ever more challenged by our ability to listen, think, reason, and respond fairly to people with whom we disagree.
We have always struggled to communicate with our political opponents, but our widening divides trouble us more than ever. Americans, aside from coastal and upper class white liberals, believe polarization is one of the biggest problems facing this country (more than any time since 1960).
However, the more modern cultural battle is how to expand a platform to the many previously drowned out voices. Are we going to increase our empathy and sympathy towards communities who we’ve largely ignored? If we do take note of these voices, how best can we address their concerns?
Liberals who preach tolerance, openness, and the desire to expand the public forum for a broader set of voices should push for these debates. They should understand participating in these forums signal that these values are genuinely cherished. That they should be properly extended to the population as a whole and not just those who agree with them. Presidential debates have rarely moved the needle much in any respect, but the candidates who participate in them can outline what kind of country they want us to become. Joe Biden debating with someone who is not up to his moral stature is currency that he can use to not only win this election, but set the tone for his time in office. That is the moment he needs to meet.
Lastly, the Presidential debates at their best valorize our ability to engage with one another’s ideas. There is bipartisan banter that the country has witnessed a demise of free speech, but in reality what we’ve seen is so many believing they are free from the consequences of their speech. While the avenues to convey one’s thought has expanded, our ability to receive feedback has shrunk.
Liberals who care for accountability and substantive conversation should know that avenues like this are important.
Democracy is a search for truth from a wide variety of perspectives. These debates don’t promise a broad forum with a dynamic set of ideas being substantively evaluated. But dismantling norms for the current leader sets a dangerous precedent that will only continue to undercut our ability to have an open exchange of ideas. If we lose our ability to entertain opposing thought, the defining tenants of modern liberalism — tolerance, openness, diversity, inclusiveness — all perish. And if that happens then Donald Trump has already won well before he stepped on the debate stage.