- - Wednesday, July 1, 2020

For all America’s bluster about democracy, for all the super-charged admonitions by both Democrats and Republicans we citizens “get out and vote” and “make your voice heard,” there is a certain perversity in the fact that we have, for the past few decades, averaged something like 2.5 presidential debates an election year.

Let that settle in for a second.

In a country of more than 300 million people, every four years, during our most consequential election, one that essentially determines where and how we spend money, who we appoint on the U.S. Supreme Court, and so on, we only hear from the candidates three times.

Three times!

Three times to hear candidates discuss, for 90 minutes or so, policy positions on everything from health care, to foreign affairs, to education, to governing philosophy. And it’s not an honest 90 minutes, mind you. Candidates will do their best to dodge and weave and appeal to as many voters as possible. But over time, a sense of their policy preferences shines through. Over time, especially as we see them under pressure, a sense of their character permeates through the television cameras.

This is precisely why we suspect both political parties wish to keep debates to a minimum. Best to let the slick television and Internet ad spots do the talking for the candidate. And moreover, the debates are scheduled for such an advanced stage in the election season — usually in late September and October — that opinions have little time to be formed and so cannot accommodate early voting. So, let’s call these decisions by both parties what they are: dishonest. It is an effort to hide the ball from the average American until it’s too late.

This election must be different. In the era of coronavirus, economic depression and widespread unrest, it is imperative we hear from candidates earlier and more often. Now is the time to pressure both the DNC and RNC, but also the bipartisan umpire of the presidential contests, the Commission on Presidential Debates, to both increase the number of contests and move them up and spread them out on the calendar.

President Trump, to his credit, has already asked the commission to add an extra debate. This may, of course, have to do with the fact that the president trails Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But an extra debate — and more of them — should be accepted by Mr. Biden, who has come under criticism for dodging live camera time.

But the American people need to hear from both candidates. Mr. Trump needs to account for his handling (or mishandling) of the coronavirus, his plan to bring the economy back to life and how to heal a fractured America. Mr. Biden, for his part, needs to provide a detailed plan of why life under his administration will be different — and better — than under a second term under Mr. Trump. Of the two candidates, it is imperative Americans hear from the seemingly reclusive Mr. Biden. Our minds are largely made up on Mr. Trump.

Finally, let’s not forget the vice presidential debates, of which there is only — and this, again, follows the tradition of the past few decades — one. Under normal circumstances, this is a debate some Americans would skip. Aside from a few barbs traded, the contenders are locked into the scripted policy positions of the presidential candidates. But this year, it feels different. There is talk, fairly or unfairly, that Mr. Biden is suffering cognitive decline. If that’s really the case, American voters must be hyper-aware of the qualities of Mr. Biden’s running mate. The same goes for current Vice President Mike Pence. He deserves to be put on the spot with the same rigor and fairness.

At the end of the day, whether one thinks presidential debates “matter” in the grand scheme of the election campaign, is besides the point. What matters is that they are owed to us, the people. If the rhetoric of democracy and openness of politicians and their political parties are to count for anything, they must go on record, and go on record frequently. This starts with debate.

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