The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canceling the remaining debates would be bad for democracy — and Democrats

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in a debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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President Trump’s horrendous behavior in Tuesday night’s debate has led some of his opponents to suggest canceling the remaining debates. They’re wrong. Continuing with the debates is essential for our democracy and could hurt Trump more than help him.

Trump’s outrageous boorishness rightly repulses people, and the polls have always shown that. Trump’s job approval rating nearly always declines when he engages in unpalatable behavior, whether it’s attacking MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski on Twitter in 2017 or using tear gas on protesters outside the White House to clear the way for a photo op in June. It’s not just Democrats and Never Trump Republicans who recoil in disgust at this; soft Republicans desert their man and party for a time when Trump’s antics dominate the news, too. Trump opponents should want his character to be the main issue as the election comes to a head. Cringeworthy outbursts such as those we watched Tuesday night do that better than any Lincoln Project television ads ever can.

This is true even if, against all expectations, Trump’s approval rating rises following the debate. If that happens, it suggests voters perceive Biden as too weak and too beholden to his party’s left. That is information that Biden backers should want to know sooner rather than later. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s polling leads blinded her team to the enduring doubts swing voters had about her character. These voters swung late and hard toward Trump, giving him the win that shocked the world. If Trump can damage Biden while throwing a 90-minute temper tantrum on live television, it reveals chinks in Biden’s armor that likely would have been revealed more slowly during October. For the Biden camp, it’s better to lance the boil and change course when you still have time.

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Most importantly, continuing the debate will help ensure the election result is viewed as legitimate by Trump supporters. Many Trump opponents can’t believe tens of millions of their fellow citizens back a man they regard as a buffoon, a racist and a potential tyrant. But those who back Trump are still Americans, and running roughshod over them isn’t good for democracy. Trump supporters will have to be satisfied that their man lost fair and square. Any decision to cancel the debates now will inevitably be viewed as an elite attempt to silence the opposition. That would entrench the bitterness Trump backers already feel and make it even harder to cool the partisan fever that is destroying the country.

Democracy’s best leaders have always known that it is wise to conciliate one’s foes rather than to inflame them. Thomas Jefferson did that after the extremely vicious election of 1800 between the Republicans and the Federalists, using his first inaugural address to say “we are all republicans; we are all federalists.” Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address, given before the imminent Union victory in the Civil War, to call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in order to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Winston Churchill enunciated this policy best when he said “in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”

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The anti-Trump forces, defeated in 2016, have certainly shown defiance these past four years. It would behoove them to show magnanimity toward the vanquished if they prevail. Keeping the debates on schedule, regardless of the revulsion they feel in the process, is the single most important thing they can do now to accomplish that noble objective.

Read more:

Donna F. Edwards: Cancel the remaining presidential debates. We can’t have a repeat of the first one.

George F. Will: For the sake of the country, cancel the remaining debates

Helaine Olen: The horrific debate shows exactly why Trump shouldn’t get a second term

Karen Tumulty: The debate was a nightmare, and a fitting summation of Trump’s presidency

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s scorched-earth nihilism will cost him the presidency

Marc A. Thiessen: Biden cleared the low bar Trump set for him. But Trump still won.