I can’t decide whether to fault President Donald Trump for pulling out of next week’s debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, or extend the thanks of a grateful nation. But after two sessions that insulted the intelligence of American voters, I’m leaning toward the latter.
The Commission for Presidential Debates announced early Thursday that, out of an abundance of caution, the Oct. 15 debate would be staged virtually instead of indoors at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. The town hall format had called for the candidates to be questioned by members of the audience, which raised the risks of a coronavirus outbreak.
Biden agreed to the change. Trump did not, saying in an interview on Fox Business, “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about.” Instead, the president _ who’s still taking the steroid dexamethasone for his COVID-19 infection _ will hold a campaign rally.
I’ll admit, I was looking forward to watching Trump position himself on the stage in Miami to loom ominously in the background whenever Biden answered questions, as Trump often did to Hillary Clinton during their town hall debate in 2016. The virtual format wouldn’t allow that, which may have made it less appealing to Trump. His poll numbers tanked after the first debate, which may have been another factor in his decision to withdraw.
But here’s why I am kind of grateful that Trump is putting the kibosh on taking part in next week’s debate. The debate now stands cancelled but the gamesmanship displayed by Trump last week and by Vice President Mike Pence during Wednesday’s vice presidential debate has received a lot of attention, which it deserved because it was extreme. But the most frustrating aspect of the debates has been how unenlightening they’ve been. Given repeated opportunities to distil for Americans their differences and their plans for the next four years, the candidates have largely whiffed.
After the smouldering wreck of the Trump-Biden dust-up, many observers expected the debate between Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to be far more policy oriented and productive. Moderator Susan Page of USA Today held up her side of the bargain, posing pointed, potentially revealing questions about a series of major issues. Instead of answering, however, the candidates delivered the broadsides their campaigns wanted them to deliver.
Nowhere was this more obvious than when Page noted how Trump’s doctors had given misleading or evasive answers about the president’s health in recent days, and asked whether the public had a right to know more. Pence praised the care Trump received, said “the transparency that they practised all along the way will continue,” and then thanked Biden and Harris for their expressions of concern. It was probably his most graceful dodge of the night.
Given the opportunity to list the many open questions about Trump’s health and the damning implications thereof _ for example, “Why won’t he say when he last tested negative for the virus?” Or, “Why did he receive the sort of treatment usually given to COVID-19 patients who had much worse symptoms than he disclosed?” _ Harris pivoted immediately to Trump’s income taxes. Seriously. His taxes.
Just as infuriating was the discussion of what would happen if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Page asked Pence, the former governor of Indiana, what restrictions on abortion he’d like to see that state impose. He first talked about foreign policy, then about whether Trump’s last-minute Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, would see her religious views challenged by Harris and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was forehead-slappingly bad.
He later came back to the issue, but only to declare how “pro-life” he and Trump are. But what does that mean in terms of restricting the right of a woman to obtain an abortion? Does he want them to be illegal in all circumstances? Does he want doctors and nurses who perform them to be prosecuted? Does he want to outlaw the morning-after pill and other drugs that abortion opponents view as abortifacients? Even if you watched the debate with the intensity of a cat eyeing a squirrel, you would still have no idea.
Then Page asked Harris what she would want to see from California, a state that enshrines the right to privacy in its constitution and by statute guarantees access to abortions. She said, “I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” but then shifted to talking about how the Trump administration was urging the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act. That’s important, granted, but Harris gave viewers no idea how far she believed the right to an abortion should extend.
So Pence, the next time he spoke, answered for her: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.” Is that true? Harris didn’t respond, leaving viewers _ and voters _ to wonder.
If the public has a right to know anything, it’s what the candidates plan to do on issues that are vitally important to them. And these debates have failed to offer much on that front. So do we really need more of them?
Jon Healey is a columnist and an editor.
Los Angeles Times