by Eric Boehlert Aug 4
Just because Trump is the Republican Party's nominee for president, doesn't mean he deserves to debate his Democratic opponent on national television.
For now, Joe Biden has committed to participating in the three scheduled presidential debates. I wish he would take a different path and tell Trump that if he doesn't release his tax returns there will be no two-man debates. Trump's ongoing refusal to be transparent about his financial past ought to forfeit him the right to participate in the nationally televised forums. And Biden would be on solid ground making that stand.
More importantly, debates are the wrong platform to give to a pathological liar like Trump. We've seen this dishonest act before and there's no reason to repeat it. There's no upside to normalizing his behavior with a presidential debate and the legitimacy it provides. Just so Trump can lie again, for example, about Hydroxychloroquine and make up claims about how Europe is being ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic while America has recovered.
"If you ask the president of the United States a question about coronavirus and air his answer, you are helping to misinform the nation about a public health emergency," noted New York University journalism professor, Jay Rosen. "In fact, the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president."
Trump lied during a 2016 debate about being audited by the IRS every year for 15 years, and lying about Hillary Clinton having "deleted" "33,000" emails.
Those two gargantuan lies were told within the span of 45 seconds. Why go through this again under the prestigious auspices of presidential debates? Why invite tens of millions of Americans to tune in so Trump can lie without pause for two hours, while his Democratic opponent does his best to adhere to a factual argument? The sponsors of the debate clearly aren't going to do anything to prevent Trump from making stuff up nonstop. And odds are the Trump campaign will take clips from a Biden debate and use them dishonestly, perhaps even altering video, in the form of attack advertising.
The press, when it does its postmortem fact checks, will likely present the debates through a Both Sides lens where each candidate is depicted as being loose with the facts. That’s how they handled the 2016 debates between Trump and Clinton. "In a wild 90-minute debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton brought up dozens of inaccuracies, half truths, and a few surprising truths," NBC reported after the final debate in 2016, highlight 36 fact checks from the evening telecast, leaving the distinct impression that Trump and Clinton were equally factual. Virtually none of the debate news coverage in 2016 focused on the fact that Trump's a pathological liar who showed no hesitation about lying about any topic raised during the forums.
The presidential debate format isn't designed to host a candidate who categorically refuses to be honest. When one of the two candidates ops out of the real world and occupies an alternative universe where the Covid-19 virus will soon "disappear" from America, then the debate no longer serves any real purpose. In fact, the debate becomes a hindrance to the electoral process and to democratic pursuits. The debates just become orgies of GOP misinformation. Trump already gets to do that every day on Twitter and via Fox News. There's no reason the presidential debates should lower themselves for that use.
Trump lies about everything, all the time, including the made-up claim that he had been invited by the New York Yankees to throw out the first pitch at the team's home opener this season. And remember Trump's July 19 interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace when he announced, "We’re signing a health-care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health-care plan?" Of course, no such plan exists. Why no hesitation on Trump's part when it comes to making stuff up about healthcare coverage for millions of Americans? Because he did it all during the 2016 campaign and during the presidential debates, and paid no price for it. ("You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost — and it’s going to be so easy.”)
The debate counter-argument is simple: ‘We've always had presidential debates.’ But that shouldn’t stand in the way of change. Trump has spent the last four years tearing up Beltway traditions and protocols and has paid little or no price for them. Maybe it's Biden's turn to do the unexpected and acknowledge we've entered a new era in American politics that doesn't lend itself to public, televised debate when one of the candidates is a perennial liar.
And for those who think the debates in the fall will help unmask Trump in front of a large television audience, that's just not how Americans politics works anymore. Tied more to entertainment that public policy, televised campaign events tend to reward the loud, dishonest actors. In 2016, Clinton won all three debates by comfortable margins, according a mountain of polling data. But in the end that didn't help her, or hurt Trump.
In truth, "The  debates took us nowhere nearer the realities about arguably the most disastrous president in our history," wrote Elizabeth Drew in the New York Times this week.
"They became simply another tool in his arsenal."
It's time to take that tool out of Trump's arsenal.