In last week’s playground skirmish of a presidential debate, America saw the candidates mostly on split screens because of their social distancing on stage. It would have looked the same had President Donald Trump and Joe Biden been in separate rooms — but that would have been far safer. With two more presidential debates scheduled, the candidates should do what millions of Americans do now: meet remotely.

Pandemic safety requirements have scuttled the traditions of packed audiences and direct candidate interaction anyway, and the irresponsible maskless behavior of Trump and his entourage last week shows there’s no real way to guarantee everyone’s safety in one room. A remote format would have the added benefit of providing a simple way to silence any participant who flouts the rules and tries to interrupt and bully his way to domination.

Trump’s petulant antics during his first debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland looked bad enough in the moment — but it was only later that the nation learned how bad it really was. No one knows exactly when Trump picked up his coronavirus infection, but the series of mostly maskless events he attended in the days before the debate are the likely culprits. During the debate, Trump’s adult children and entourage in the audience took off their masks in blatant disregard for the agreed restrictions, ignoring officials of the venue who pressed them to abide by the well-established rules and mask up.

On stage, Trump mocked Biden for his diligence. “I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump said, essentially bragging about his own recklessness. Even Trump’s later infection and symptoms wouldn’t curb that recklessness, as he ordered the Secret Service to drive him around Walter Reed hospital to wave at supporters, then left the facility despite still being highly contagious and vulnerable so he could return to a White House full of potential new virus victims.

Biden has resisted calls to skip the last two scheduled debates because of Trump’s behavior, citing the public’s right to directly compare the candidates. That’s reasonable, but Biden’s responsibility to that principle doesn’t include risking his life. Since even Trump’s own illness hasn’t prompted him to protect himself or others, organizers should insist that the remaining two debates (next Thursday in Miami, and Oct. 22 in Nashville) be conducted remotely. This would not only protect the candidates and everyone else from infection, but would ensure that if Trump decides to again ignore the rules, his bluster will be cloaked in electronic silence because the video software doesn’t allow two people to speak at once.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that a president who thinks he has the right to both interrupt and potentially infect his opponent might boycott the events under such rules. If so, let him. America deserves debates that are both safe and substantive.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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