If the US voting base continues on its increasingly radical trajectory, it is possible that in future elections, an outright refusal to debate from a Presidential candidate will barely register as a blip on the public’s radar.
Last Thursday afternoon Speaker of the US House of Representatives and California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi outlined her stance on the tricky question of the 2020 election debates: they “shouldn’t be any” at all. In the United Kingdom, television debates only entered the general election cycle in 2010. US TV presidential debates have been a staple of the race to the presidency since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon butted heads before 179 million viewers in 1960. These debates have become an essential and uniquely transparent part of the late election cycle. They are eagerly awaited by voters seeking to watch their chosen candidate outshine their opponent, and by independents and undecideds open to scrutinising both options.
To withdraw would be a catastrophic move for either candidate’s optics. It would rob the opposition candidate, in particular, of a public platform to propose their alternative vision for the country, and would surely infuse their image with connotations of arrogance and intellectual cowardice. How can a candidate prove their qualification for the Presidency if they cannot even address their opponent’s arguments, never mind push through reform, negotiate with prickly foreign powers, and persuade voters to trust in their agenda?
Pelosi justified her remarks by claiming that the incumbent President would only “belittle what the debates are supposed to be about”. She continued “I wouldn’t legitimise a conversation with him, nor a debate, in terms of the presidency of the United States.” The problem for Pelosi and her Party is that Trump’s voice was already “legitimised” by the millions of Americans who voted him into office in 2016.
Ignoring Trump’s appeal and arguments will not magically cede victory to the Democrats. Stifling the traditional sequence of debates will only serve to estrange the Biden campaign from the hearts and minds of Americans seeking to understand what their candidate offers as opposed to the incumbent administration. Although there are staunch Democrats who will pledge their support for Biden no matter what the former Vice-President offers – and no doubt there are plenty of Trump voters with a similar mindset – campaigns that win, work on persuading the fence-sitters rather than preaching to the choir.
Pelosi herself may not be the candidate, but she embodies a toxic streak at the heart of the Democratic leadership. Although her rifts with “The Squad” have been widely reported, she remains generally liked even among younger and ever “woker” Democrats. She even has her own merchandise store in which slogans such as “Don’t Mess With Nancy” and “Patron Saint of Shade” are plastered across stickers, mugs and t-shirts that cash in on her sassy truth-to-power brand. Her hard talk on Trump’s immigration policies and COVID-19 strategies have been cheer-leaded across the ideological patchwork of progressives who wish to see the President out of office at any cost- as the shaky articles of impeachment enacted earlier this year showed us.
Although in an interview with MSNBC subsequent to Pelosi’s comments, Biden swiftly affirmed that he fully intends to participate in debates, Pelosi’s desperate bid to stifle a Biden-Trump confrontation may still serve to galvanise the doubt in many Americans’ minds concerning Joe Biden’s fitness for the highest office. If Democrats were sure of Biden’s ability to outshine Trump in the debates, what better way to demonstrate this than before an audience of millions of viewers?
A recent poll found that a whopping 59% of Americans believed Biden would not last his term if elected, and around 38% believed he is suffering from some form of mental deterioration. Although the verdict on Biden’s health is not yet entirely clear, a withdrawal from the debates would surely send distress signals to an already hesitant public and swing these polls against the interest of the Democrats.
If Biden is to win in November, his campaign must actively engage with swing voters by demonstrating a comprehensive plan for the country beyond a distaste for Donald Trump. However, if the US voting base continues on its increasingly radical trajectory, it is possible that in future elections, an outright refusal to debate from a Presidential candidate will barely register as a blip on the public’s radar.