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Will Biden debate Trump?

Over at the Atlantic, David Frum argues that Joe Biden should decline to debate Donald Trump this autumn, urging the president and his team to issue a statement declaring: “The Constitution is not debatable. The president does not participate in forums with a person under criminal indictment for his attempt to overthrow the Constitution.”

Frum contends that the networks are urging the debates to go on as scheduled because they expect a ratings bonanza and cannot distinguish their financial interest from the national interest. And he is absolutely convinced that it is in the national interest that Biden and Trump never appear on a debate stage together. Frum is echoing the thoughts of Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chris Coons of Delaware, who suggested that Biden shouldn’t debate Trump because it would “elevate” his opponent.

Biden is free to make any decision he likes, but those who oppose Trump shouldn’t fool themselves about the way many voters will interpret a decision like that. If the 81-year-old Biden refuses to participate in debates later this year, many Americans will conclude that it’s because he’s too old and that either he or his staff fears what Biden would say, or how he would appear, over the course of three 90-minute presidential debates. Yes, Biden looked fired up in his most recent State of the Union address, but in the end, all Biden had to do was read off a teleprompter and pause for applause. Debates are much tougher, and the opportunities for gaffes and unflattering moments are plentiful.

Biden bailed on the traditional annual Super Bowl interview twice, he rarely addresses the country in prime time other than the State of the Union, and his public events are almost always in the middle of the day. A Biden declaration that he is skipping the autumn debates would be eagerly greeted by Trump fans. To the extent that wavering undecided voters exist this cycle, many would likely perceive it as Biden waving the white flag of surrender. If the argument for reelecting Trump is so self-evidently absurd, why is Biden refusing to get up on a stage and make it?

Yes, Trump is a giant hypocrite for skipping the GOP primary debates and then turning around and insisting that Biden has “an obligation” to debate him. But presidential debates in the primaries and general election have been, on balance, good for the electorate — and often good for the candidates, themselves. There’s an arrogance to candidates who believe they don’t need to share a stage with any rivals — and no Biden fan should walk around pretending that skipping the debates would reassure the public’s faith in a president whose approval rating is still below 40 percent.

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