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Undebatable showdown

Canceling presidential debates should be a non-starter, despite growing pressure

Undebatable showdown

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate on October 15, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

During most election years, the month of August brings the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial beginning of American voters paying closer attention to the presidential elections. 

The next two weeks will have two big events: the start of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17 and the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24.

But perhaps the biggest event is slated for Sept. 29: the first presidential debate at Case Western University in Cleveland.

In the absence of traditional campaigning during the pandemic, it’s one of the most significant opportunities for voters to hear from both candidates—despite a rippling undercurrent suggesting that Biden should refuse. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman urged Biden to refuse to debate unless Trump agrees to release his tax returns and allow a fact-checking team to report any false statements uttered during the debate. 

Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart argued Biden should refuse to debate because he says Trump doesn’t follow the rules or tell the truth. A few days later, The New York Times ran another opinion piece: “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.”

Let’s don’t.

Biden says he’s eager to face-off with Trump, and voters ought to hear from both candidates. Some pundits speculate Biden supporters are concerned about how the candidate will perform under pressure, after a long series of gaffes and moments of apparent confusion.

Biden bristled when a reporter asked if he had undergone a cognitive assessment: No, he said: “Why the hell would I take a test?” Biden said he looked forward to Americans assessing him for themselves. (A story in WORLD shows how both candidates face scrutiny over physical and mental fitness, and how it’s a question that likely will follow both men until Election Day.)

Debates have proven important in the past: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan was 74 at the time, and speculation swirled about whether his age was affecting his mental sharpness. 

Reagan rallied in the second debate, when the moderator finally asked the question: Given his age and the stress of the presidency, did Reagan have any doubts about whether he was still up to the job?

Not at all, Reagan replied. “And I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Even Mondale, then 56, smiled and applauded. On Election Day, Reagan became the second president in history to carry 49 out of 50 states. 

The political dynamics are very different in 2020, and a debate or two probably won’t deliver a landslide victory to either candidate, but the reality remains: Voters want to see and hear from candidates for themselves.

A post-script to the Reagan era offers a reminder that while discussions of mental fitness often involve jokes and levity, it’s actually a serious issue that calls for more sobriety than scorn. 

Reagan completed his second term, and went home to California. Six years later, he wrote a letter informing the American public he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was hopeful, and he remained active, but Reagan was saying goodbye.

He thanked Americans for “the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.” He spoke of dying whenever the Lord called him home: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” 

Reagan lived another decade. 

But even as he began to falter, he still played golf and took walks in the park. The Toledo Blade reported a 1997 encounter with Reagan relayed by Rostik Dennenburg. 

The young man recalled walking in a California park with his grandfather, Yakov Ravin, a Ukrainian immigrant. He said they spotted the former president in the park, and his grandfather stopped to thank him for all he did to help bring freedom to people who lived in the former Soviet Union.  

Reagan’s reply was simple: “Yes, that was my job.”

Comments

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  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Fri, 08/14/2020 01:19 pm

    I hope they don't cancel the debates.  I was planning to order the blu-ray special edition!  With Biden and Trump it should be some of the best entertainment in years!

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 08/15/2020 02:33 pm

    Odd, Mr Trump keeps recycling the same old lies and insults--not much new there. I find him pretty boring myself. I sure would like to move on.

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Sat, 08/15/2020 11:06 pm

    West Coast Gramma, how I long for pleasant words in these political times! "Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." (Proverbs 16: 24)

    A honeycomb is such a wonderful image! When I was a child, some of the first honey that my father brought home for the family was borne in a honeycomb within a wooden box. It was so delicious! When eating that sweetness on fresh bread, any "bones of contention" within the family were forgotten in the unity of the experience. May this word picture -- or another like it -- be sweet and healing among us as we bear with one another within the family of our Heavenly Father.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sun, 08/16/2020 10:03 pm

    Hannah,

    So, you would like me to not call a spade a spade? Or not to mention that the emporer has no clothes? Would you have said the same thing to Jesus when he said, "Woe to you, hypocrites and Pharisees..." Or, "Good fruit doesn't come from a bad tree; you can tell them by their fruit?" Or, Would you have said the same thing to Dietrich Bonhoeffer when Hitler was hauling the Jews off to the incineration furnaces? Have you never heard that silence equals complicity? I'm most likely older than you, and my many decades as a silent Christian has taught me that speech should not be left to villians only. Many Christians believe that God decides who wins elections--I believe that he gave our country a democratic government because he wants us to decide who to elect. It's between me and the Lord how he will judge my heart as to its motives and whether I speak tough love for our country and its suffering poor or wicked hatred out of a bitter heart. Thanks, but no thanks for your advice. If I were to follow it, then why would I even be reading the news? Revelation 9:10

  • GC
    Posted: Wed, 08/19/2020 11:24 am

    HANNAH, perhaps you should direct your admonition concerning the use of sweet and pleasant words to Mr. Trump. His mouth and Twitter feed are toxic.

  • BF
    Posted: Sun, 08/16/2020 07:33 pm

    Hanna,

    You're right, honeycomb did come in a wooden box, I had forgotten that! That was a long time ago. Yes, it was good and sweet and so fun to chew. Thanks for the reminder and the admonition to let our words be edifying to our fellow believers. 

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sun, 08/16/2020 08:18 pm

    He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Tue, 08/18/2020 10:16 am

    Well said, BF!

  • KATIE N
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 08:44 am

    Americans deserve to hear a debate. Withholding the information that comes out in debate is unacceptable. How is a man to lead our country if he can’t stand in a room with 3 people and talk? 

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 08/17/2020 11:49 am

    Amen! The same goes for this forum, where we debate by commenting on the news and the articles.

  • DEBI
    Posted: Sun, 08/23/2020 08:57 pm

    West Coast Gramma, I do not subscribe to World Magazine so that I can read your snarky comments !  There are so many other sources to choose from for doing that !  Please just give us a break !

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Mon, 08/24/2020 07:52 am

    Reminder: Personal attacks are not allowed. Please read WORLD’s comment policy.

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Thu, 08/27/2020 03:25 pm

    I would suggest that World institute a policy in which every commenter uses his or her real name. I believe it is cowardly to use a fake name.
    By the way, my name is Allen Johnson, Frost, West Virginia.