Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Thursday afternoon, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden sparred over the dates and formats of any future presidential debates. The Biden camp insisted that they keep to the established schedule, which calls for an October 15 townhall debate in Miami, and a traditional lectern debate on October 22, in Nashville. The Trump camp wants the Miami debate delayed to the 22nd, and the third debate rescheduled for the 29th.

The dispute began on Thursday morning when Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien issued a combative formal statement announcing that his candidate will not participate on October 15.

“President Trump won the first debate despite a terrible and biased moderator in Chris Wallace, and everybody knows it. For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic. That’s not what debates are about or how they’re done. Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration. The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head. We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”

This confirmed what Trump told Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business Channel shortly before Stepien’s statement: “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate.” Trump and Stepien, who have both tested positive for COVID-19, were responding to a decision the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), made in consultation with its health advisers at the Cleveland Clinic, to change the format of the second debate: “In order to protect the health and safety of all involved… the second debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations.”

The CPD was formed in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties. It has organized every presidential and vice-presidential debate since 1988. While the CPD has been criticized, especially for making it difficult for third-party candidates to meet their standard for participation, it has succeeded in stabilizing debate seasons in presidential election years.

The first televised presidential debates occurred in 1960. But no debates were held in 1964, 1968, and 1972. In 1976, the League of Women Voters organized three debates between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, and one debate between vice-presidential candidates Senator Bob Dole and Senator Walter Mondale. The CPD later adopted this 3:1 formula, and it’s been their standard in every election since 2000.

The most chaotic debate season occurred in 1980 when then-President Carter objected to the participation of independent candidate John Anderson, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. The latter gave up his house seat in 1979 to run for the White House. As a result, the first debate was a one-on-one between Anderson and the Republican Party’s nominee, Ronald Reagan. The second debate was canceled, and the third included Carter but not Anderson. There was no debate between vice-presidential candidates Mondale and George H.W. Bush.

The last cycle before the CPD took over, in 1984, had two presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. Under the CPD’s leadership, the debates have often included both the traditional format where candidates stand at a lectern and answer a moderator’s questions and the more informal town hall setting where the candidates field queries from the audience. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama excelled in the town hall format, while Mitt Romney performed better at a podium.

Having the CPD establish and enforce a standard for debates brings order to the process. It will often be the case that one candidate or the other will see no advantage in debating or insist on a format that favors them. After 20 years of a consistent formula, the public knows what to expect, and there’s a high cost for any candidate who wants to bow out or set conditions for their participation.

Trump undermined the order of the process in the first debate, after which the CPD responded to his constant interruptions by promising to revisit the rules:

“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the CPD said in a statement. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”

Now Trump is testing the costs of non-participation. While initially refusing to participate in a virtual debate, he now proposes to delay that debate a week. The Biden campaign has rejected this out of hand, with spokeswoman Katie Bedingfield insisting, “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does…Trump chose today to pull out of the October 15 debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar and pick new dates of his choosing.”

If Trump doesn’t back down, he’ll appear to be ducking a challenge, especially because surveys show he lost the first debate and a drop in the president’s poll numbers followed.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the reasoning behind Trump’s decision. He told Bartiromo there’s no reason to change the debate format because “I don’t think I’m contagious at all.”

Yet, he quickly changed course and assented to a virtual debate provided that it is delayed. That’s perhaps a reluctant concession to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says patients remain contagious for 10 days after the onset of symptoms and as many as 20 days in severe cases. The second debate is scheduled for October 15, a mere 12 days after Trump was hospitalized and given treatment consistent with a severe case of COVID-19. Necessary precautions suggest Trump should remain isolated past the 15th.

Given that Trump lost the first debate, he may not be eager for more punishment. The town hall format of the second debate (whenever it is scheduled) is not favorable to the strategy he used initially, as interrupting Biden while he’s talking to a voter will be more abrasive than when he’s talking to a moderator. For both of these reasons, Trump may be seizing on the CPD decision to avoid future debates he doesn’t believe will help his reelection chances. The problem is, the American people will sense this, and he may lose more from chickening out than he would if he showed up.

The president has no legal obligation to debate, and there is as yet no word on what will happen if he refuses to show up. It makes little sense to refuse a virtual debate on the 15th and agree to one on the 22nd. It’s also hard to understand why he’d refuse to debate again if a third debate isn’t scheduled for the 29th.

Biden has to like how he’s positioned. If Trump backs down, the president will look weak. Speaking to reporters in Arizona on Thursday, Biden said, “We don’t know what the president’s going to do. He changes his mind every second.” Asked what’d he do if Trump decides to hold a rally on the 15th instead of debate, Biden wasn’t sure how he’d react.

Actor Clint Eastwood famously debated an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, but I’m not sure Biden wants to emulate that performance.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at