TrumpBiden
© Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump • Former VP Joe Biden
Joe Biden is a stumbling speaker at the best of times, and Donald Trump is the insult king. With the two set to engage in three televised debates, the New York Times has decided that Biden needs an out.

"I worry about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump," New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on Tuesday. Friedman is likely not the only liberal pundit sweating at the prospect. Donald Trump, for all his ineloquence, is a brutal debater, well used to ripping his opponents apart with off-the-cuff insults and jibes. Joe Biden, by contrast, mumbles and fumbles his way even through prepared statements, and often forgets where he is, what he's talking about, and confuses figures.

Thankfully for Team Joe, Friedman offered up a roadmap for Biden to worm his way out of the traditional televised debates, the first of which is scheduled for late September. First, he argued, Biden should demand Trump release his tax returns. Though Trump is not legally required to do this, his opponents have claimed that his reluctance to release his records belies some shadiness.

Secondly, Friedman reckons the Biden camp should insist that the debates be fact-checked in real time by a team approved by both candidates. Ten minutes before the conclusion of the debates, the team should report on any "misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered."

Friedman fretted that Biden may "have to spend a majority of his time correcting Trump before making his own points." However, the idea that Biden would be able to counter Trump's "lies" with cold, hard facts is perhaps a little fanciful. Trump is known to play fast and loose with facts, but Biden's own statements too are riddled with ludicrous claims, such as his recent assertion that "120 million" Americans (more than a third of the US population) have died from the coronavirus.

These are not the symptoms of a terminal liar, conservatives claim, but of cognitive decline. And just as Friedman hopes to shield Biden from debate or tilt the scales in his favor with "fact checkers," conservative opinion writers want Biden to release the results of his cognitive tests.

"Trump is badly trailing in the polls," Friedman noted, pointing out that the incumbent president "needs these debates much more than Biden does to win over undecided voters." Conversely, some commentators noted that Biden needs to get out of these debates much more than Trump does, to avoid sabotaging what may be an otherwise easy ride to the White House.




Friedman's column is not the first call to abolish or rethink the long-standing tradition of presidential debates. Several universities have pulled out of contention to host the debates, citing fears of Covid-19. The Washington Post suggested last month that the face-offs be held via a video chat app.

The pandemic has already allowed Biden to dodge a showdown with then-2020 rival Bernie Sanders in April. Biden claimed in late March that he was devoting his energies to dealing with the rampaging virus, and said "I think we've had enough debates. I think we should get on with this." Sanders dropped out of the race two weeks later and endorsed Biden.

When Trump and Biden eventually square up to each other, either in person or virtually, the president's handling of the coronavirus crisis and the racially-charged riots of recent months will likely be placed front and center by Team Biden. Trump has already savaged Biden for his forgetfulness, and will likely press the issue further on stage.

With the public unimpressed by Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a blistering and jeering attack on Biden, and a deer-in-the-headlights reaction from the 77-year-old Democrat, would serve up precisely the optics the Trump campaign needs.

Perhaps that, more than any concerns about truth or transparency, is what Friedman and his ilk fear most.