In her weekly press briefing on Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made some news.
“I don’t think there should be any debates,” she said of the presidential election fight between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. “I wouldn’t legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States.”
Pelosi was offering solely her personal opinion. She acknowledged that “the Biden campaign thinks in a different way about this.” And Biden himself quickly made clear that his plan was to participate in the three general election debates sanctioned by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. “As long as the commission continues down the straight and narrow as they have, I’m going to debate him,” Biden told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Despite Biden’s quick denial of Pelosi’s no-debates proposal, there’s no question that the speaker just handed Trump’s campaign more fodder to make its case that the former vice president is hiding from the public – and the President.
“BREAKING: Biden campaign to ask Nancy Pelosi to join him in the basement,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sara Carter, a Fox News contributor, said this of Pelosi’s no-debates proposal: “Interesting… what do you think is going on here?
You see where this is all headed. While Pelosi was clear about the fact that she and the Biden team had a disagreement about the debates – and while Biden was quick to make clear that he plans to participate in all three general election debates – Trump and his allies will seize on her comments as reflective of either a) secret coordination among Democrats to keep Biden from debating or b) a not-so-subtle lack of confidence by Pelosi in Biden’s abilities as a candidate. Or both.
Trump and his team have already sought to make the debates a major issue in the campaign, using them as a sign of Biden’s alleged unwillingness to engage.
“I would be highly surprised if Joe Biden actually went through with all three debates,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told The Washington Post earlier this month. “I think their strategy will be to show up to one, show that he is able to function and then pull the plug on any additional debates.”
(The three presidential debates are set for September 29, October 15 and October 22. There is a vice presidential debate scheduled for October 7.) The President pushed earlier this month to add a fourth presidential debate in early September, with his personal lawyer arguing that the debate calendar was an “outdated dinosaur and not reflective of voting realities in 2020.”
The commission rejected that move. “The commission has found that three 90-minute debates work well to fulfill the voter education purposes the debates are intended to serve,” a letter sent back to the Trump campaign said. “If the candidates were to agree that they wished to add to that schedule, the Commission would consider that request but remains committed to the schedule of debates it has planned as reflected in the attached release.”
The truth is that Trump needs the debates – the more, the better. While his summer polling freefall appears to have ended, Trump still trails Biden by high single-digits nationally and is behind in far too many swing states for him to be on track to win the 270 electoral votes he needs to claim a second term. Trump needs something – something big-ish – to change the dynamic of the race, which, at the moment, is entirely centered on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the pandemic, in-person campaigning is much reduced – leaving the candidates to battle via TV interviews and Zoom calls with supporters. In such a static environment, the debates present Trump with one of the very rare opportunities for him to draw hard contrasts with his Democratic rival. (Another major chance for Trump to do that is his speech tonight to close the Republican National Convention.)
Ultimately, how Biden performs in the debates will rule the day. If he does well – as he did in his convention speech last week – Pelosi’s comments won’t even be remembered. But between now and September 29, Republicans will make hay of Pelosi’s comments – using them to try to undermine Biden’s readiness for the job. (As I have written before, this strategy could backfire badly on them.) And if Biden falters in that first debate, you can bet Republicans will dredge up Pelosi’s comments as proof that Democratic leaders knew their nominee was in over his head.