Should Biden Debate? (Yes and No)

Now that President Biden has announced his candidacy to remain our government’s chief executive until he’s nearly four score and seven years old, much has been made of the Democratic Party having no plans to schedule debates during the primary. Complaints about this decision can be found from all corners of the internet.

Most upset, of course, are his most prominent declared challengers for the Democratic nomination. Marianne Williamson warns of the Democratic Party’s potential hypocrisy: “With the fascists at the door, the last thing we should do is limit the conversation about how to defeat them. The assumption that Joe Biden is necessarily our best bet in 2024 should be vigorously challenged. He should face his primary challengers in a meaningful debate.” Similarly, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. thinks, for the good of the party and country, there should be debates “particularly at this time in history,” because “there are so many Americans who are worried about election integrity, who have lost faith in election integrity and feel like the whole system, including the election system, is rigged against them.” He added, “I think he has an obligation to democracy to debate.”

They’re not alone. Others from the left join them. Cenk Uygar blasted the decision, summarizing thusly: “DNC has already announced that it will not allow any debates in 2024 primary. Biden is not to be challenged. Everyone on the Democratic side must shut up and fall in line. Not having debates is undemocratic and ridiculous. No progressive should agree to this kind of power grab.” Fellow progressive Nina Turner opined “Not debating is undemocratic, no matter the justification. Debates are a part of a healthy democracy.” A worried Krystal Ball insists, “There must be primary debates so Democrats have some chance to assess Biden’s capacity. The stakes are too high.”

I agree with all of them. In this specific case, Biden should attempt to answer those who worry about his age by proving himself to the party before its stuck with him as a nominee in a general election. More than that, as a general principal, our leaders should continually be held to a high standard, one that forces them to earn our vote. Both in the primary process and during the general election, debates give us glimpses into the candidates’ knowledge, acuity, empathy, flexibility, and temperament. Although I’d reform the flawed presidential debate structure to which we’ve grown accustomed, I still believe having debates in their current format is better than having no debates at all.

So put me on the record as being pro-debate. Both parties should have them. Third parties should have them. And our general elections should have as many as reasonable. That means I think that I could have titled today’s piece, “Yes, Joe Biden Should Absolutely Have to Debate to Earn Our Vote.”

All that said, I can be frustrated by more than one thing at a time. A closed and undemocratic primary process bothers me, but so too does hypocrisy and ignorance. Democratic challengers and lefty pundits are not the only ones criticizing the lack of debates in the Democratic Primary. Republicans have joined them.

Republican Primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, whose has otherwise been putting on a messaging masterclass in these early stages, says, “Free speech & open debate. Don’t hide from it like Biden. Practice what we preach.” Last night he added, “It’s pathetic that the DNC is shielding Joe Biden from debate. Real men don’t hide.” Jewish Space Laser theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene asks, “How are Democrat voters ok with this? Your own party is telling you that you have no choice and they refuse to even give you a choice.” Conservative Twitter is aflame with outrageand accusations of hiding Biden.

This bad faith rhetoric is as hypocritical as the rebuttal to it is obvious: where were you four years ago? Four years ago, Donald Trump, like Joe Biden now, was the incumbent president running for re-election. Trump then, like Biden now, had real opponents. In fact, unlike Biden’s fringy opponents who have never held political office, Trump’s were real live government officials: Bill Weld and Mark Sanford were governors, Joe Walsh a former Congressman.

Where were Republicans on the issue of open debate and political choice then? I think we all know the answer. The Republican National Committee, Republican lawmakers, and conservative media were all deferring to the party’s incumbent President, just like their Democratic counterparts are now.

And it’s not just now and then. Presidents Biden and Trump aren’t the only incumbent presidents without primary election debates. Obama didn’t have them. Nor did Bush. Nor did Clinton. Nor did Bush I. Nor did Reagan. Nor did Carter. You get the drift: no incumbent of either party has ever attended a primary debate. To think that Biden is obligated to debate, or his party is obligated to schedule it, is to be ignorant of history.

Again, that doesn’t reverse my original position: Yes, Biden should debate, but at least be consistent! I also wish Weld had been able to get on stage with Trump, even if it would have devolved into the informed and well-spoken nerd being better on substance and style while the big dumb jock calls him “loser” to raucous applause. Unless you’re willing to concede Weld deserved a debate spot every bit as much as RFK Jr. does now, please spare me the indignation that open debate is lost if Biden doesn’t have to debate in the primary. This is the way it’s always been done for sitting presidents.

Perhaps the only remaining argument is that President Biden is a unique situation compared to past first-term presidents, but even this position has problems.

For example, one might point to his age: no President running for re-election has ever been this old, and so he must prove himself in a series of primary debates. Fine, maybe we should make that a rule. But in 2020, Trump, at 74 years old, was the oldest president ever to run for re-election, a title he took from Ronald Reagan (73 in 1984), who had taken the title from Dwight Eisenhower (66 in 1956). Should this rule have applied then? Or are we going to say “oldest ever”… starting now? If so, does that mean future 79-year-old presidents are spared primary debates because Biden has set a new standard of 80? If not, what’s the younger cut-off age? Who gets to decide?

Or perhaps his senility is enough in question to warrant a debate. Therefore, rather than age being the trigger for a debate, maybe it’s mental acuity. Sounds great. But who’s the judge? The media? The general vibe? A doctor? Who picks the doctor? You see the problem. Besides, we’re just four years removed from Republicans nominating their own potentially certifiable nominee, and they’re probably about to do so again. For both Biden and Trump, a whole bunch of people question their senility. What’s enough to force them into a primary debate? What is the litmus test?

Or maybe it’s that Biden’s opponents poll better than the opponents of past presidents, which is by some margin the best argument for those who think that Biden should be uniquely mandated to debate unlike his predecessors. Although many polls have asked about a hypothetical Democratic Primary field, which yields a bunch of potential candidates polling in the single digits with Biden way out front, Real Clear Politics has charted two national polls that asks respondents their preference between the only three “major” candidates that have actually declared: Biden, Williamson, and Kennedy. Here’s what those polls said:

Those are great results for Kennedy and Williamson! It’s been clear for some time that about half the party wants to move on from Biden, and these survey results are evidence of many of those voters supporting any alternative. So maybe double-digit polling could be the objective, scientific way to trigger a debate? That could work.

But sorry, Republicans — I can find you polls from 2019 where Bill Weld polled 16 or 17 points, among many other results in the double digits. Does that mean Trump should have debated him? I doubt you can find any prominent Republicans answering in the affirmative, and so I’m still seeking a reason why Biden 2024 should debate in a primary but Trump 2020, among other past presidents, shouldn’t.

Here’s the thing. Trump 2020 enjoyed, and Biden 2024 currently enjoys, gargantuan polling leads. These leads are bigger than Trump’s 2024 lead, a relevant contrast if you ask Trump himself. In Trump we currently have a non-incumbent favorite who also seems to think debates are optional for heavy favorites. He recently commented on the GOP scheduling its first debate, whining, “I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them.” In New Hampshire last week, he showed a slideshow of his big polling leads — which are no bigger than Biden’s — and wondered why Republicans would even need a debate. “Why would you do that?” he asked.

In truth, a good way to lose these leads would be in a high-profile debate that could elevate challengers or lead to a primary-altering gaffe. They can be an unforced error. Trump knows as much, recently explaining, “When you’re way up, you don’t do debates. If you’re even or down you do debates, but when you’re way up, what’s the purpose of doing the debate?” A Republican must be forced to challenge the logic of their own party leader before criticizing Biden or the DNC.

Ultimately, it seems both Biden and Trump are hoping to run their campaigns from their respective safe spaces, where younger, brighter, and more fluent people can’t say mean things to them. Vivek Ramaswamy said “real men don’t hide,” but apparently real presidents do.

No, it’s not a democratic approach, nor is it brave — but it’s smart.

So should Biden debate? Obviously not. (I mean, have you see him?)

All considered, I’d agree with a position that Biden is the most prominent example of us needing to require incumbent presidents to debate for the nomination, but I don’t see how we can say for certain he should be the only president to have done so. Instead, I think someone should have to pick one of three paths:

  1. Concede all incumbent presidents should have had to do primary debates and that they should in the future, too.
  2. Argue presidents have earned their party’s loyalty and are too busy governing the country to engage in primary debates. Kings shouldn’t have to debate pawns.
  3. Hope the parties agree to an objective trigger — perhaps a polling threshold that both sides will honor — because asking one side to unilaterally subject their presidents to primary debates is an unrealistic ask.

But no one ever asks me these things.


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