In an opinion column for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman proposes that Joe Biden debate Donald Trump only if the President meets two conditions. Trump must release his tax returns and agree to a non-partisan panel of fact-checkers. The fact-checkers, he says, should point out the debaters’ errors in real time and conclude the event by summarizing their findings.
Among really bad ideas, this one is a prize-winner. Let us count the reasons why.
Trump’s failure to release his tax returns is a legitimate issue to debate, not a precondition for one. Biden is free to raise it on the campaign trail and debate stage, just as Hillary Clinton did. Remember, the voters have already dealt with this issue once. They elected Trump without knowing his tax filings (and probably doubting any high-minded reasons he gave for keeping them under wraps). The President, in turn, is free to ask Biden to release his secret medical records, including the cognitive tests the former vice president proudly says he has repeatedly taken. Repeatedly? Who does that? Trump is free to demand Biden release all the sealed documents from his Senate career, now hidden at the University of Delaware. He’s free to ask about Biden’s son, Hunter’s income from Ukraine and China.
One purpose of the debates is to let the candidates make these points, if they wish, and try to persuade voters. Alternatively, Biden or Trump might decide voters care much more about economic recovery, COVID-19, school re-openings, and threats from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. For Friedman to say that Trump’s tax returns and bi-partisan fact-checking are preconditions for any debate is to establish his own priorities, not the candidates’ or the voters’.
As for real-time fact checking, there are several points Friedman might wish to consider.
First, if any news channel wishes to fact-check the debates, they can already do so. Go at it CNN, Washington Post and NYT. Go at it Fox. There is no need to elevate this, essentially political task, to a semi-official status — to try (in vain) to make it apolitical or a precondition for debates. The debates and the claims each candidate makes are not technical matters like the load-capacity of bridges. They will not be settled by a 5-4 vote of fact-checkers, either. They are political matters, through and through, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. No semi-official body can rise above it. Let news organizations check whatever facts they wish. Let Americans turn to the sources they trust — and avoid the ones they consider biased. Let the voters decide for themselves.
Second, Friedman’s proposal is little more than a transparent attempt to give the former vice president an escape route from any debate. Biden has already promised three debates, whether he now decides to forego them depends on a simple calculation. Does he put himself at greater political risk if he tries to renege on his commitment or if he goes on stage and shows some deficiencies? Only Biden and his advisers can make that decision, but it should be obvious which risks Friedman considers more dangerous for Biden — perhaps he’s right. In any case, his goal of helping the Democratic candidate is easy to see. All you need to do is ask yourself a simple question: what would he say if Trump refused any debates unless Biden released his cognitive tests? He and the Times would thunder that it is unconscionable, that he has a duty to the voters, that Trump is afraid to confront his opponent one-on-one. Those criticisms should apply equally to candidates from both parties. They should apply to Friedman’s ‘escape hatch’ proposal, too.
Third, Friedman’s idea of a ‘bipartisan’ panel of fact-checkers shows the clueless arrogance of America’s educated elites. His proposal for experts to referee political speech is, at bottom, the one advocated for over a century by Progressives, beginning with Woodrow Wilson. The idea is that all politics ought to be governed by experts, not by the masses flooding our shores from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Greece, and China. Those immigrants were the backbone of big-city political machines, and Progressives wanted to replace them with trained professionals. The basic idea was to strip American politics of, well, politics. That’s the intellectual foundation of Friedman’s official fact-checking idea. Depend on what the experts tell you.
We need experts, of course, especially when issues demand technical expertise. But a democratic society should not be governed by them or by their shills in the Washington bureaucracy or NYT opinion pages. Our democracy should be governed by America’s citizens and its elected representatives, acting within Constitutional bounds. That is the foundation of our Republic. Tom Friedman should remember it.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.