You’d think that Democrats, especially a savvy pol like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would have internalized a basic rule of campaigning: Don’t hand your opponent a baseball bat to hit you over the head with.
But that’s just what Pelosi did Thursday with her nutty suggestion that her party’s presidential candidate refuse to debate Donald Trump because doing so would “legitimize” any appearance with what she sees as an undeserving president.
Pelosi’s suggestion plays right into the Republican narrative, voiced repeatedly at the GOP convention this week, that the Biden campaign wants to keep its candidate away from the public.
“I don’t think there should be any debate,” Pelosi said at a press conference. “I wouldn’t legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States.”
Pelosi acknowledged that Joe Biden’s campaign “thinks in a different way about this.”
Thank God for that. Pelosi’s stance is so wrong, on so many levels. It ignores a basic obligation that seekers of the country’s highest office have to the American people — the presentation of their ideas, accomplishments and programs in a rough-and-tumble format where those ideas and policies can be challenged. And it suggests that the standard-bearers of our party system believe it’s acceptable to shut out the other side rather than engage in an exchange — whether civil or uncivil — a notion that only exacerbates our polarized divisions. Let’s not say “civil exchange.”
It isn’t even good politics.
Pelosi’s suggestion plays right into the Republican narrative, voiced repeatedly at the GOP convention this week, that the Biden campaign wants to keep its candidate away from the public because it fears that exposure would show voters he’s not mentally up to the job.
Indeed, it didn’t take the Republicans long to take up that theme. “Odd way to project confidence in your nominee,” Michael Ahrens, the Republican National Committee’s communications director, tweeted less than an hour after Pelosi made her remarks.
Politics aside, there’s a deeper problem with Pelosi’s stance. It reflects the view of too many thought leaders that they are just that — thought leaders, rather than thought enablers. They view themselves as arbiters of what expressions, views, actions are acceptable for the public to encounter.
Republicans decry Democrats for engaging in so-called cancel culture, even as many in the GOP engage in it themselves. Liberals say they believe in the values of the First Amendment, but then didn’t want readers of The New York Times op-ed page to read an essay by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., calling for the use of U.S. troops to put down unrest in some cities. Conservatives say people have the right to nonviolently protest, and then call for NFL players to be fired for peacefully kneeling during the National Anthem.
Some might argue that Pelosi isn’t stifling Trump’s expression since she suggested that, instead of a face-to-face debate, Trump and Biden be interviewed on separate stages about their policies. They would also note that Pelosi says she is against the debate because of Trump’s behavior during a 2016 debate when he allegedly “stalked” Hilary Clinton.
Interviews on separate stages are fine — if they are an additional opportunity for voters to learn about the candidates, not a replacement for a time-tested prerequisite for public office. But the American people need to see how these candidates deal with each other. We need to see how they treat an adversary — with disdain or kindness or firmness or cowardice — in order to make a judgment on how they would handle world leaders, members of Congress, industry CEOs and the general public. Voters also get the chance to see how the candidates react when challenged and how well they think on their feet.
If Biden can’t stand up to Trump’s bullying, how will he handle Chinese President Xi Jinping? If Trump is bamboozled by Biden, could he ever get anything more out of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un except “love letters”?
And the idea that Trump was disrespectful of Clinton, meaning he’s not entitled to a head-to-head matchup with his 2020 opponent, falls apart under strict scrutiny. In my former job as part of CNN’s Office of Standards and Practices, scrutinize is exactly what I did. Reviewing the tape from the debate makes clear that, at one point as she was speaking, Trump walked up and stood next to his chair and lectern on the stage, and one time glanced down at his notes. He was where he had every right to be. She just happened to be standing right in front of that spot. It’s a stretch to call it stalking.
Yet even if Trump unsurprisingly engages in odious behavior during the debate, doesn’t the public have the right to see it and factor that into their judgment about whether they want him re-elected? And shouldn’t they get to see how Biden reacts to any perceived slights, to get the better measure of his character and how he handles himself?
A better suggestion from Pelosi would be that reporters moderating the debate be encouraged to fact-check the candidates on the spot. I am well aware that this would put a heap of pressure on those reporters to be fair and accurate if they call out a misstatement by either of the two candidates, and, even if they are, they would be subject to intense criticism. But that pressure is part of the honor of representing the voters in this crucial element of any campaign.
Journalists would have to be well-prepared so as to not let the candidates get away with outright lies. They also have to be fair in discerning between differences in interpretation of an event or statement and blatant prevarications. Of course, even if they do their jobs well, journalists who call out a candidate during a debate should expect to be accorded as much shame as fame.
A better suggestion from Pelosi would be that reporters moderating the debate be encouraged to fact-check the candidates on the spot.
In 2012, CNN’s Candy Crowley was the target of scathing criticism — mostly from Republicans — when, during the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, she correctly pointed out that the GOP candidate had misstated Obama’s initial reaction to the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi.
But putting a lot of pressure on journalists to do their job well is a whole lot better than depriving the American people of debate.
And frankly, if Pelosi really wants to scuttle the debates, this suggestion just might do it.