It was a right-wing talking point until it became breaking news.
Republicans had spent months questioning the mental acuity of Joe Biden, speculating whether the elder statesman would back out of his commitment to debate President Trump in prime time. A Biden spokesman dismissed that kind of talk as “an imaginary controversy” cooked up by Republican and Fox News to distract from the coronavirus.
"This is not a mystery," TJ Ducklo told CNN earlier in August when both campaigns were still negotiating the terms of the contest. "The debate commission has invited both candidates to participate in three debates. Joe Biden has accepted. Donald Trump has not. Mystery solved."
Both candidates have since accepted the invitation, but mystery still remains, at least in the mind of Nancy Pelosi. "I don't think that there should be any debates," the House speaker said out of the blue at a news conference on Thursday, adding she doesn't want the debates to be "an exercise in skulduggery."
"I wouldn't legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States,” Pelosi said. “Now I know that the Biden campaign thinks in a different way about this."
History would also look differently on a cancelled debate. The contests are institutions in their own right and have continued despite previous crises. Walking away would be a trampling of norms and a gift to Republicans.
But they are not waiting. Republicans are already taking a victory lap in real time. They are dunking on Pelosi and taunting Biden. “President Trump's passion, energy, and debate skills are unmatched,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy crooned. “It's no surprise that Pelosi wants to keep Biden in the basement.”
But Republicans may want to hold off. They risk setting expectations so low that Biden easily vaults over them and dismisses their arguments about senility with one able performance at the debate. It wouldn’t be the first time.
While the Democratic National Committee was mostly scripted, Republican operatives were giddy as they watched and hoped that Biden would fumble his acceptance speech with an embarrassing gaffe or a “senior moment.” They were left disappointed. While the Trump campaign had predicted a flop for months and dropped cash on ads claiming Biden was in “cognitive decline,” he delivered the speech of his lifetime.
Rave reviews followed from all corners—including the right.
Dana Perino, former Bush White House press secretary, called it “a home run in the bottom of the ninth.” Chris Wallace added that it was “enormously effective,” and the Fox News Sunday host said Biden had just “blown a hole” in Trump’s characterization of him.
It was enough to worry longtime conservative commentator Erick Erickson who offered a PSA to the GOP: “Republicans, despite what you’ve heard, you aren’t running against a vegetable. Time to get focused and serious. Joe is.”
Despite the warnings, Republicans have doubled down on mental dexterity. Fine, Biden can give a good speech, they argued after the DNC. But can he really hold his own next to Trump? Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued as much as recently as Wednesday.
“It's one thing to read prepared remarks from a teleprompter. It's a whole new ballgame to have to go toe to toe and actually debate the president or take tough questions from the media, two things that Joe Biden is going to have to do to move the ball forward, and I think it will be a pivotal moment when we actually see these two men onstage debating one another,” the former White House press secretary said on Fox News. “And I don't think that Joe Biden is going to get the same kind of headlines coming out of that that he did last night.”
It is true that Biden has enjoyed his fair share of positive headlines and friendly press coverage. To get them he had to endure a grueling Democratic primary. He may not have stolen the show on stage at the debates, and he took his fair share of slings and arrows, but Biden did not lose. The occasional gaffe was not enough to keep the former vice president from rambling his way to the nomination.
He seems ready to run the same play against Trump. Biden rejected Pelosi’s call to stay at home outright during an MSNBC interview Thursday, saying that "the debates are going to take place," and that, when standing next to Trump, he will do his best to be a "fact checker on the floor."