NEW YORK — President Donald Trump says that he wouldn’t “waste my time” by taking part in a virtual debate with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump’s making a big mistake, even if it’s all just gamesmanship.
The debate commission wants to make the next Trump/Biden matchup, set for Oct. 15 in Miami, into a virtual event because of the president’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis.
Trump can huff and puff, but he did this to himself.
After months of downplaying the threat from coronavirus, the president last weekend was laid up in Walter Reed hospital with the virus. A boatload of administration officials and others in the Trump orbit have also fallen ill.
So now extra precautions can be taken with the debate and there’s frankly not a lot that Trump can say about it. Other than to take his ball and go home.
Trump has said that the debate commission is looking to protect Biden from another live encounter. And you can see the logic. Making the debate virtual would mimic the remote “basement” environment from which Biden has waged the bulk of his campaign. He’ll be perfectly comfortable in that setting.
Then again, Biden did fine in his first, in-person debate with Trump last week. There were none of the mental lapses, gaffes and confusion that Biden has showed in the campaign. He didn’t look like he needs to be protected from anyone. The bar was admittedly low, but Biden cleared it.
Yes, sitting at a computer wouldn’t be an ideal setup, as Trump rightly points out. Especially when you consider that the ratings will likely be through the roof as Americans tune in to get their first long look at the president since he was released from the hospital.
If Trump doesn’t appear it’s only going to lead to speculation that the president’s health isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be. Trump would hoist himself on the same petard he used against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he questioned whether she was physically fit enough for the presidency.
And it wouldn’t be the first time that a presidential debate has gone “virtual.”
In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon took part in a debate even though Nixon was in Los Angeles and Kennedy was in New York. It was set up via split screen with the candidates using identical sets so they appeared to be together.
Instead of worrying about the debate format, Trump should look at how Vice President Mike Pence handled his debate against Sen. Kamala Harris, the Dem vice presidential candidate, on Wednesday night.
Unlike the blustery, interrupting, out-of-control Trump, Pence was clear, calm and forceful. He made Trump’s case for re-election better than Trump does himself. It was everything that Trump supporters could have hoped for and might be looked back on as the first “Pence 2024” campaign appearance.
Trump should take a page from his running mate. Get on the air with Biden, no matter the format, and just lay out his record. Take the deserved hit that’s coming over coronavirus, and then talk about the economy and the judiciary and fracking and the unrest on the streets in Democratic cities.
The incumbent in any race rarely wants to debate. They don’t want to give their challenger the opportunity to stand on stage with them and look like they belong, like they can do the job. The incumbent is always the hunted, defending their record.
But Trump simply has no choice. When President Jimmy Carter refused to debate in 1980, the event went ahead with Republican Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson.
If Trump takes a powder, Biden will get the free air time, with Trump left to sling arrows from his bed via Twitter.
The president should just get in the ring.
(Tom Wrobleski writes for the Staten Island Advance.)