On Wednesday night, the commission will allow Vice President Pence to appear at the vice-presidential debate, even though he, too, was at the Rose Garden event and sat immediately in front of at least one person who tested positive (Sen. Mike Lee of Utah). Pence will be separated from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) by the skimpiest of plexiglass panels.
What is clear is that the commission is allowing the White House to call the shots. Commission co-chair Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. told the Los Angeles Times: “There will be a plexiglass divider between the two candidates and the candidates and the moderator. The Trump campaign agreed to that so long as we don’t surround Vice President Pence all the way around.” It should not be Pence’s call. The plexiglass is for others’ protection, not just his.
This should be the last debate overseen by the commission, which plainly has failed to provide a safe environment and set a good example for a pandemic-plagued country. Any future debates with Trump should be remote, as we simply cannot trust him or his doctors to tell us when he was infected, how serious his case is and what, if any, symptoms he is still experiencing.
There is no need at all for in-person presidential debates during a pandemic. In 1960, a third of the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates was remote. Doing so again would solve two problems: maintaining health standards and making it easier to prevent Trump’s interruptions. He can be muted when his opponent is speaking.
Why does the Commission on Presidential Debates allow reckless conduct from Team Trump? Perhaps it wants good ratings. Perhaps it does not want to enrage Trump. Perhaps it figures a remote debate won’t attract as many viewers. Inertia might paralyze the commission’s members.
It really does not matter what the reason is for the commission’s fecklessness. What matters is that the candidates, moderator and audience remain safe. The best and logical way to do this, which does not depend on the White House for accurate information, is to have remote debates. The onus should not be on the Biden camp to demand this.
The commission might see the light after Wednesday night’s debate. But if its leaders fear incurring the ire of the president, they should consider that such unnecessary events under these circumstances is the perfect description of reckless endangerment, a crime in virtually all, if not all, states. Perhaps the commission should be held liable should anyone fall ill because of these debates.