Democratic lawmakers are leery about the prospect of President Biden debating former President Trump, fearing that putting the two on stage together would only elevate the likely GOP nominee.
Trump has skipped every Republican presidential primary debate thus far but says he’s eager to debate Biden.
He told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt before Christmas that he would “look forward” to facing Biden and suggested 10 debates.
Democratic lawmakers, however, are not relishing that scenario.
“I would think twice about it,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) about the prospect of Biden debating Trump.
“I’ve been physically present at one of [Trump’s] debates with Hillary Clinton, and I watched him do outrageous things and say outrageous things. It’s just an opportunity for him to display his extremism.”
Democratic lawmakers talk publicly about Biden running on his record of accomplishment.
But privately they concede they are counting on Trump collapsing under the weight of more than 90 felony charges and his penchant for conflict and outlandish claims turning off women and swing voters.
At the same time, they acknowledge that voters’ perception of Biden’s age — he’s 81 years old — is his biggest political liability.
While Democrats think Biden won his two debates with Trump in 2020, he would be four years older if he faced Trump on stage again. Trump turned 77 in June.
Some Democrats worry that Trump’s image is so bad that if he merely surpasses low expectations on a debate stage with Biden, it could be as helpful as winning a debate outright.
That’s what happened in the 2000 presidential campaign when former President George W. Bush exceeded expectations in his first debate against then-Vice President Al Gore.
But the biggest concern is that putting Trump next to Biden on a stage and giving him equal time before a national audience would have some legitimizing effect on a candidate who regularly makes incendiary remarks and continues to claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
Trump shocked even Republicans on Capitol Hill recently when he declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
Durbin said “that’s the kind of fascist blather that the United States should reject from either political party.”
Some Democrats argue that Trump shouldn’t even appear on the ballot because they believe he violated the 14th Amendment, which bars anyone who took an oath to support the Constitution and later engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the country from holding federal office. The Supreme Court on Friday said it would consider a Colorado ruling on the matter.
Democratic senators say the decision to debate Trump belongs entirely to Biden and his campaign team, but some of them argue that Biden doesn’t need to feel compelled to debate Trump.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, called Trump’s comments about immigrants poisoning the nation “hateful, fascist remarks,” adding that Trump makes such statements “with regular frequency.”
“I was in the room for one of the debates in 2020 — Chris Wallace was the moderator. The former president in no way at all respected the rules or the tradition or decorum” of presidential debates, Coons said. “It was a disaster.”
Coons was referring to Biden’s and Trump’s first presidential debate in September 2020, which devolved into a chaotic mess of interruptions and cross-talking.
Wallace, who was a Fox News anchor at the time, later blamed Trump for bearing “the primary responsibility for what happened” and expressed frustration that voters nationwide didn’t get “the debate they wanted” or “deserved.”
“I’m not going to get ahead of myself on campaign strategy,” Coons said, pointing out that Trump hasn’t yet won the GOP nomination, though he is viewed as the overwhelming favorite.
But the Delaware senator said there’s no reason to dignify Trump as a candidate by debating him, especially considering that Trump has refused to debate any of his Republican primary opponents.
“The fact that former President Trump was unable to conduct himself in just a minimally reasonable way” during the 2020 debate “and that he’s refusing to debate any of his primary opponents this time would make a pretty strong case for not dignifying him as a candidate by sharing a debate stage,” Coons said.
Coons emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of Biden’s campaign.
Not all Democrats, however, agree that Biden doesn’t need to debate Trump.
Longtime Democratic strategist James Carville said while it would be risky for Biden to face Trump, it would look bad if the president ducked his opponent.
“There’s damage if you don’t [debate]. There’s damage if you do and you don’t do well,” he said. “It’s kind of expected of a presidential candidate.”
Carville said Trump will have legitimacy as a candidate if he wins the GOP nomination, even though he would be barred from even voting in most states if he’s convicted on any of the dozens of felony counts he’s now facing.
“If he gets the nomination, Republican primary voters will have given him legitimacy. I mean, we don’t hand it out like gummy bears or something,” he said.
Carville noted that the Commission on Presidential Debates has already scheduled three general election debates for later this year in Texas, Virginia and Utah, though neither Biden nor Trump has committed to anything yet.
“Somebody’s going to take a poll, and 73 percent of the people will think there ought to be a debate,” he predicted. “You can do it or not do it as you see fit, but there are consequences to it.”
Carville said Trump is going to “scream and yell” if Biden doesn’t debate him.
The lead strategist of former President Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign acknowledged that Biden’s age is an issue but warned that avoiding a debate with Trump would only put a brighter spotlight on it.
“Not debating would certainly accentuate the age problem,” he said. “It’s obviously a decision that’s going to be discussed and parsed and gone over with a fine-tooth [comb].”
Carville suggested Biden “could agree to one.”
Strategists say Biden would have more impetus to debate Trump if he’s still trailing him in the polls a few months before Election Day.
Some polls, such as a recent New York Times/Siena College survey of registered voters nationwide, show Trump leading Biden among registered voters nationwide.
Democratic strategist Steve Jarding said Trump lost any leverage in demanding multiple general-election debates by refusing to face his GOP challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, this past summer and fall.
“Trump is the wrong guy to suggest that he’s setting parameters. This is the guy that refused to debate his Republican opponents. So when he calls for 10 debates, it’s like, ‘You don’t get to do that, Don,’” he said.
“Yes, there’s the optics of age, though Trump’s not a spring chicken, either,” Jarding said. “Although there is a history that Biden did pretty well in debates last time” in 2020.
Jarding said that from the incumbent’s point of view, if “things are going well, you want to debate. If things aren’t going well, you don’t want to debate, because you’re going to talk about things that aren’t going well, and that will highlight them.”
Leaving aside the questions about Biden’s “age” and Trump’s “bravado,” Jarding said Biden has a strong reason to debate because it will give him a chance to talk about his record, which includes 22 consecutive months of sub-4 percent unemployment.
“Gas prices are down, we just had a good jobs report for December, another one. Things are going pretty well,” he said. “You’ve got inflation under control … Normally, that’s a debate I want to have.”
But he acknowledged that counting on having a facts-based debate about the economy with Trump is “a risk” because “Trump doesn’t play by any rules.”
“There are risks, I get that, but the publicity that you would get I just think would be potentially off the charts. The president of the United States would say, ‘Here’s my record. I’m proud of it,’” he said. “It’s risky. If the economy wasn’t going well, I’d say, ‘No way, no, don’t do it. He didn’t debate his Republican opponents, you don’t have to debate him. Don’t give him the floor.’”
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