There’s a debate raging right now about the presidential debates: Will they happen this time around?
Without further ado: The debates will happen. They always have. They will this time, too.
But that’s never the point in the silly city that is Washington, D.C. What’s important is the kabuki theater that underlies every issue. It’s not the doing, it’s the talking. And talking. And talking.
Facts don’t matter, everything becomes a debate about the debate.
So now there’s literally a debate about the debates.
CNN’s media pundit and “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter on Monday blamed conservative news outlets for pushing the notion that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden won’t debate.
“It is mostly a right-wing media tempest, fueled by hour after hour of Fox commentary (not reporting), far removed from campaign reality,” he wrote on Twitter.
But just like many of the claims on CNN, Mr. Stelter’s was specious at best, outright false at worst. The idea that Mr. Biden shouldn’t debate was created exclusively by Democrats.
Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary for Bill Clinton, was among the first to say that Mr. Biden — who has already agreed to appear at the three debates that run from Sept. 29 and Oct. 22 — shouldn’t show up.
“Whatever you do, don’t debate Trump,” the CNN contributor wrote last week in an op-ed piece for the liberal cable news site. “Trump has made more than 20,000 misleading or false statements according to the Washington Post. It’s a fool’s errand to enter the ring with someone who can’t follow the rules or the truth. Biden will undoubtedly take heat from Republicans and the media for skipping the debates. But it’s worth the risk as trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.”
Zac Petkanas, a former Hillary Clinton senior adviser, wrote on Twitter last week that Mr. Biden can skip the debates because President Trump is not a “legitimate candidate,” and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said last month that Mr. Biden should debate Mr. Trump only if the president releases his tax returns and agrees to a real-time fact-check by an independent group during the debates.
“Biden has been dogged by boneheaded issues of plagiarism in his career, but nothing compared to Trump’s daily fire hose of dishonesty, which has no rival in U.S. presidential history. That’s why it’s so important to insist that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hire independent fact-checkers who, after the two candidates give their closing arguments — but before the debate goes off the air — present a rundown of any statements that were false or only partly true,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
Then there was Times writer Elizabeth Drew, who penned a piece Monday headlined, “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.”
“Nervous managers of the scheduled 2020 presidential debates are shuffling the logistics and locations to deal with the threat of the coronavirus. But here’s a better idea: Scrap them altogether. And not for health reasons,” Ms. Drew wrote. “The debates have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership. In fact, one could argue that they reward precisely the opposite of what we want in a president.
“When we were serious about the presidency, we wanted intelligence, thoughtfulness, knowledge, empathy and, to be sure, likability. It should also go without saying, dignity. Yet the debates play an outsize role in campaigns and weigh more heavily on the verdict than their true value deserves.”
Newsweek also published a piece this week headlined, “Supporters Urge Joe Biden Not to Debate Trump, Applaud Hosts for Canceling Over COVID-19 Concerns.”
So it’s been liberals pushing against the idea that Mr. Biden should show up for the debates.
Conservatives do, however, wonder whether that orchestrated push has come because Democrats fear the 77-year-old Mr. Biden might perform poorly in a faceoff with Mr. Trump.
“If I were Joe Biden, I’d want to stay off the stage. There’s no way he can stand on the stage with President Trump and survive,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, said over the weekend.
Wags took to Twitter to blast Mr. Stelter for his spurious claim.
“When I think about my most Reliable Sources as a reporter, I definitely think about the sources who are shameless partisans who are utterly unwilling to admit when they’re wrong and are brazen & embarrassing as they double down when proven to be laughably & demonstrably off base,” Washington Examiner reporter Jerry Dunleavy tweeted.
Mr. Stelter later shifted his argument, saying on Twitter: “I’m well aware. but it’s a mistake to spend lots of precious time yakking about what leftie columnists are suggesting in this case. obviously biden will debate. why imply otherwise to viewers, hour after hour?”
So wait: It’s a “right-wing media tempest” because Fox News is “yakking about what leftie columnists are suggesting”?
Only in this crazy kabuki town would such a thing even be uttered.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.