Earlier this summer, Donald Trump’s campaign floated complaints about the timing of the three presidential debates. Now his campaign is floating the possibility that maybe he won’t show up for them at all. Politico reports that Trump’s campaign has been unusually evasive about whether he will debate, and the candidate, in an interview with Time, hedges: “I want to debate very badly. But I have to see the conditions.”
It would be fairly stupid for a candidate who trails, and lacks other known opportunities to make up ground, to skip the only scheduled high-profile campaign events left. On the other hand, the “candidate would never do something stupid” model has a poor record of predicting Trump’s behavior so far. What’s more, if Trump does pull to within striking distance, he has every reason to avoid a debate with Hillary Clinton.
Trump is a vacuous celebrity blowhard with no experience in politics or public policy. Questions about specifics tend to expose a howling chasm of ignorance, whether it concerns the nuclear triad or the imaginary 12th article of the Constitution. He barely reads anything, and according to people inside his campaign, he watches television all day long. Even if Trump had any intention of making up the vast deficit in knowledge about public policy separating him from a normal presidential candidate, he lacks the attention span to focus.
How did Trump get through the Republican debates then? Mostly he relied on the protection afforded him by the large crowds onstage, which let his insult-and-run method of dodging substantive queries work for him. When the campaign had narrowed to a one-on-one showdown between Trump and Ted Cruz, Cruz repeatedly challenged Trump to one-on-one debates, only to be rebuffed. Trump was ahead, yes, but not by an insurmountable margin the whole time. What he knew was that letting Cruz face him on a stage alone, where other candidates couldn’t break in, would have gone very badly for him.
Trump is probably playing coy in hopes of gaining some leverage over the debate moderators or other aspects of the format. But it’s well within the realm of possibility that Trump will simply duck the debate because he knows a lengthy forum with a series of policy questions he barely understands will expose him.