Should Trump bail on the debates next year?


Our colleague Hugh Hewitt has a particularly hot take at the Washington Post this week having to do with the debates. But he’s not talking about the ongoing Democratic clown car shows like the one last night. Hugh is looking to the future and the general election debates between President Trump and whoever the Democrats wind up selecting.

His suggestion is going to come off as a bit on the radical side. Rather than quibbling over the format or the location or who gets the first question, Hugh is suggesting that Trump simply announce that he won’t be participating. Unless, that is, some major changes are made so the debates will be conducted in a fair fashion.

Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the schedule of 2020 presidential debates. President Trump should quickly dismiss that schedule as unacceptable and announce that if any debates will be held at all in 2020, it will be only after extensive, direct negotiations between him and the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party and their respective designated representatives. And those negotiations should begin from a premise that the Republicans will no longer play by the biased rules of a deeply unbalanced Manhattan-Beltway media elite. Explicitly articulating this declaration of intent now, along with the possibility that, as in 1968 and 1972, there won’t be any debates, would do both the public and the elite media a great service.

According to a recent Gallup survey, 13 percent of Americans “have a great deal of trust” in the mass media and 28 percent “a fair amount,” with “69% of Democrats [saying] they have trust and confidence in it, while 15% of Republicans and 36% of independents agree.” So more than half the country distrusts the media, and that suspicion is overwhelming among those on the center-right.

Hugh goes on from there at length, excoriating the “Manhattan-Beltway media elite” with plenty of doses of largely deserved criticism. The amount of bias on display in the media has just become so ubiquitous that many of us don’t even bother commenting on it anymore. Hewitt cites poll numbers showing the lack of faith most of the country has in the mainstream media these days and this is a problem that predates the Trump presidency by quite a bit.

As to the suggestion that Trump should stonewall the commission unless negotiations with the candidates become part of the formula is neither radical nor legally problematic. Keep in mind that the Commission on Presidential Debates is not a government entity. Its dictates are not the law of the land and it carries no legal authority. There is no law requiring candidates to show up for debates and the schedule issued by the commission is not in any way legally binding.

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With all of that said, Trump would need to proceed carefully in my opinion. Calling for a negotiation with the Democratic candidate before any debates are agreed to is perfectly reasonable and the commission should go along with it. But flatly walking away from the debates carries its own risks. Some will doubtless see such a decision as a case of Trump being “too afraid” to face his opponent in a one-on-one verbal rumble. (That’s actually a laughable idea when you consider how much he loves mixing it up, but people will still say it.)

There’s also the question of who will moderate the debates, select the questions and set the tone. Certainly we don’t want another 2012 Candy Crowley debacle, but somebody has to be found to do the job. And we can’t just draw a random name out of the phone book. The goal is to make sure that it’s an individual moderator that the public has a reasonable amount of trust in and the event doesn’t just turn into a two-hour gotcha question ambush of the President by an obviously liberal moderator.

Can such a person and format be found in the toxic political stew of the current era? I’d like to think so. But if not, Hugh may be correct. Perhaps the President should just walk away rather than delivering himself to his enemies on a silver platter.

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