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.