With Kamala Harris out of the race, voters were anticipating a Donald Trump debate against Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden with some glee, as long as the ex-veep didn't resort to pushups. According to the New York Times, however, the chairman has told advisers that he does not trust the Presidential Debate Committee, suggesting that he can participate in the full 2020 debates. During a recent press conference, Trump's aides did not discuss the president's debate strategy, with an aide appearing to "wince" at the question and saying "it was not something the advisers were prepared to discuss until next year," the times reported Thursday.
Trump did not comment directly on the issue this time, but during the 2016 cycle he repeatedly suggested that the format of the debate and the moderators were biased against him in favor of Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state dominated the individual debates, which Trump spent delivering ridiculous and memorable lines ("No puppets, no puppets – you're the puppet!") AND strangely lurking behind your rival. As the Times notes, after each debate, Clinton received better performance ratings from most voters. While people close to Trump told the Times that his issue stems from "fears" about the debate committee and its skepticism about possible moderators, it is equally likely that he is afraid of facing his opponent head-on.
If Trump really refuses to debate his opponent in 2020, he would be breaking with another – albeit relatively recent – political tradition. (Modern debates have their roots in television 1960 clashes between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and have been a feature of presidential contests every cycle. since 1976.) While the debates give voters a chance to see two candidates face to face, they there is not has had a particularly dramatic impact on recent races; Trump won the 2016 election despite his poor performances.
Still, it is in Trump's interest to avoid allowing his future opponent the kind of incident that Clinton saw in setting up a challenging reelection proposal. And if he wants to explain his reticence, his propaganda machine is already in place – Trump just needs to discredit the debates as "manipulated" so that his base will answer the call and excuse him. Even fluctuating the potential of jumping to the Times is a strategic move: set low expectations and exceed them just a little. "Doing nothing would not be strategically smart," longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines told the Times. "He bluffs for doing nothing in order to just have to make one."
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