Jim Hartman: Biden is hidin’
Can a nearly invisible Joe Biden hide through election day?
So far, a “bunker strategy” for the former vice president hidden away in his Wilmington, Delaware basement has paid political dividends. National polling averages had him with a double-digit lead, only slightly diminished recently.
Biden has avoided all Sunday news shows since early April and weekly invitations to appear on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace since March 1 have been declined. He went three months without holding a press conference.
On June 30, Biden emerged and took 15 friendly questions over 30 minutes primarily being asked to respond to controversies involving Trump. While he committed no obvious gaffes, his answers were not always clear and there were awkward moments that drew attention to his age.
No appearance will be made by him at the Democratic National Convention. It will be held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic and he will deliver his acceptance speech from his home state of Delaware.
This could be a plus — he’s shown himself to be prone to making multiple gaffes when being interviewed by reporters and responding to questions from the public during town halls and in-person campaigning.
Televised presidential debates have been a political fixture since 1960. The Commission on Presidential Debates has been their sponsor beginning in 1988. This year, three presidential debates are scheduled: Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22.
But there are growing calls that Biden avoid or cancel debates with President Trump.
Tom Friedman, opinion columnist for the New York Times, wrote that Biden should debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018 and he should insist on a real-time fact checking team be part of the debate.
Liberal journalist Elizabeth Drew, who was a panelist during a 1976 debate, now writes a New York Times op-ed that concludes: “Let’s scrap the presidential debates. They’ve become unrevealing quip contests.”
Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart gave CNN his advice for Biden: “Whatever you do, don’t debate Trump… It’s a fools errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth.”
But it’s a terrible year to not have presidential debates. The pandemic has put political rallies on hold so few voters will see the candidates.
Biden has been holed up in Wilmington, speaking to supporters via social media, giving scripted speeches in front of a teleprompter at home or nearby to small numbers of socially distanced people. He takes media questions infrequently.
The debates will be a rare chance for a third party questioner to push Biden on his policy plans.
In addition, the former vice president would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest president in history on Inauguration Day. Trump has essentially called him senile and Biden’s verbal stumbles and notable memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries.
The public needs to see how well Biden holds up under debate pressure. They need to hear his answers to policy questions. If he ducks debates, voters would correctly conclude that his political managers are trying to protect him from doubts about his cognitive capacity.
If the debate format needs changing to provide for longer and deeper answers then that can be accommodated. But the debates should not be canceled — particularly not in 2020.
Biden insists that he is very much willing to debate Trump. In fact, his campaign has already agreed to the three debates with the president. And, Trump campaign attacks may have done Biden a favor by lowering public expectations for the former vice president’s debate performance.
Biden portrays Trump as incompetent, a liar, and racist. A face-to-face debate obligates Biden to make that case to voters.
Trump commands constant attention. Biden needs to be seen and heard from — unscripted.
Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa who watched the first televised presidential debate in 1960: Nixon v. Kennedy. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.