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OPINION | Will Joe Biden duck the debates?

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TELEVISED presidential debates have been forcing future leaders of the free world to sweat since Richard Nixon in 1960.

Six times President Obama went mano a mano with Republican opponents in 2008 and 2012. But Joe Biden is leading President Trump in the polls and has been known to fumble his words, so now TV debates are apparently passé.

 

The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three of them for Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, beginning Sept. 29. But it’s becoming a theme in certain quarters — namely, the New York Times — that Mr. Biden should skip out, or that the face-offs should be canceled. The latest entry is an op-ed by the liberal journalist Elizabeth Drew, who was a panelist during a 1976 debate. “The debates have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership,” she writes, because points are awarded for “snappy comebacks and one-liners.”

 

What a terrible year to make this argument. The pandemic has put the usual political rallies on hold, so fewer voters will see the candidates in the flesh. The conventions will be largely online. Press aides will shape the news coverage by picking friendly interviewers. Mr. Biden “hasn’t done any Sunday shows since Covid,” Fox News’s Chris Wallace recently said, adding that “we will ask every week.” The debates will be a rare chance for a third party to push Mr. Biden on his plans for tax increases and a Green New Deal. Also, Mr. Biden would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest President in history on Day 1. Mr. Trump is all but calling him senile, and Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries. How about when Mr. Biden mistakenly referred to Britain’s leader as Margaret Thatcher, who resigned in 1990? Or when he boasted of working on the Paris climate deal with Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997?

 

The public deserves to see how well Mr. Biden holds up under debate pressure, while hearing his answers to pointed questions about his policy proposals. If he ducks debates, voters will have every right to conclude that his handlers are trying to protect him from doubts about his cognitive capacity.

 

If the debates seem too much like an endless succession of sound bites, that’s an argument for changing their format and pushing for longer and deeper answers, not axing them — especially not in 2020. Mr. Biden portrays Mr. Trump as a bumbling incompetent, a racist, and a liar. If he believes that, he should be willing to repeat his accusations face to face.

 

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