Frank DeFilippo: Are Trump-Biden Debates Really Necessary?

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders at a Democratic presidential debate earlier this year. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, inadvertently and each in his own way, have helped to develop a new paradigm for choosing presidents.

The old test-driven formula was – raise a ton of money, triage the voters and smother the airwaves with commercials.

The fourth, often downplayed element were the obligatory debates, in which the candidates suffered us through boring job interviews and every tic, moue, gesture and gaffe were analyzed, and the panelists were on trial for even so much as a cocked eyebrow as a signal of bias.

This last round of debates, with two dozen or so candidates, was like a frat-house binge, a little too long at the keg and a miserable head-banger of a hangover. Democracy in action can be kind or cruel.

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Debates are hard to win and easy to lose. When they’re over, what the viewers remember is how the candidates looked and sounded and little more than a fragment of what they said. Less than insightful, the aftershock of debates is more about picking winners and losers than being informative.

Rarely, if ever, do they reveal what kind of a president a candidate will be.

And over the 60 years since the very first Kennedy-Nixon debate, the conclusion of their value is this: Debates rarely change many minds unless there’s a major blunder, and all they really do is reinforce what viewers already believe.

As if any further evidence is needed as to the validity of debates, those who saw the Kennedy-Nixon debate on television believed Kennedy won, and those who heard it on radio thought Nixon came out on top.

Put aside the debates. Trump and Biden have ushered in a splendid new and thoroughly reliable Rorschach that will test the true mettle and grit of a candidate’s qualifications to be president.

Trump’s entry in the new test model is this: Put a candidate in a crisis situation, much like Trump has been during the pandemic, and watch how they sort out information, inter-act with experts and advisers, arrive at decisions and present policy conclusions to the public.

Observe signs of calm or stress, temper, language, ability to absorb and summarize gobs of detailed information, leadership in controlling a meeting without dominating it, evenhandedness in allowing equal time for competing points of view, and other elements of a serious post-graduate seminar discussion.

Of course, the performance art of truth or consequence above would be monitored by polygraph, which measures stress, blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity to determine believability. Smug looks do not require mechanical detection.

From Biden comes the second part of the mind-bending package: No doubt the most important decisions a president must make is the choice of people who will surround and advise them. Biden has said he will announce many of his cabinet and staff choices – and possibly his selection of a vice president – as part of his campaign lead-up to the November election. So what you’ll see is what you’ll get in the White House.

The prospective candidates on Biden’s lists are already under the vetting microscope, though Biden has already hinted that, at 77, he’ll likely serve only one term and that his choice of an understudy will be a woman. As for staff, there are hundreds of seasoned hands from the Obama-Biden years, and the Biden Senate years before those, probably hankering for another turn at running the country.

So insert tab A into slot B, as with the Ikea formula, merge the Trump stress test and the Biden dance card, and the new text sure beats another round of debates in which the contestants do little more than recite boilerplate and memorized talking points.

Life imitates life. Actually, we, the people, are getting a preview of the new candidates’ suitability audition almost daily, as if on a continuous loop. So we know the measure of the men will work as a campaign mechanism, kind of like technology transfer.

That said, Trump, being the incumbent president and all, is likely to resist offers to debate, perhaps more than just once to prove he’s a good sport. Trump has zig-zagged on the issue and declared that ultimately, because he’s president, “debates are up to me.”

Smart move, on his part. Trump is, after all, not very facile with words, can’t construct a sentence that will diagram, has no room for verbs in their structure and relies so much on hyperbole that he destroys his own believability. As Voltaire observed, “Adjectives are the enemy of nouns.”

Biden, for his part, touchy-feely that he is, yammers and stammers and tends to go off-track. But when he’s on, he’s on, and can deliver a barn-burner of a speech even if he does falter in debate.

So what we have to judge by is what’s before us – the miles of copy and libraries of photos and endless threads of tweets of Trump in the hot seat, trying to wish away an invisible and nasty little germ that is beyond his control, as well as his limited intellectual grasp, that is rotting away his presidency.

And Biden, with the nomination in the bag and campaigning from his basement pandemic hideaway, is sweating out a 1990s accusation from a former staffer over an alleged sexual assault. Biden called the accusation “flat-out false.”

Tara Reade, the woman accusing Biden, has torqued up the challenge to a duel of lie detector tests: If Biden will take one, so will she. As if that weren’t enough, she’s urging Biden to withdraw from the race (even though she says she doesn’t want Trump to win a second term.)

To neutralize sexual allegations as a campaign issue, Trump has outstanding charges from at least a dozen women of some form of sexual misbehavior, from mild flirtations to aggressive private parts-grabbing, some allegations dating back years, others during his marriage to his current of three wives.

That’s the campaign in a nutshell.

There’s really no need for debates. All that’s necessary is to turn on the cameras every day and let ‘em roll. Trump and Biden will do the rest. All the voters have to do is pay attention.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.