Joe Biden owes us an answer. Just before dropping the now-famous line, “Will you shut up, man?” he was asked an important question Tuesday night by debate moderator Chris Wallace: “Are you willing to tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the court?”
He was not willing.
Indeed, Biden was in the process of dodging that question (“Whatever position I take on that, that’ll become the issue”) when Donald Trump interrupted. “Are you going to pack the court?” Trump demanded, twice (!), before stating the obvious: “He doesn’t want to answer that question.”
At this point, an exasperated Wallace surrendered. “Gentlemen, I think we’ve ended this,” he said. “We have ended the segment. We’re going to move on to the second segment.”
If you were looking for more evidence that (a) Trump is his own worst enemy, and that (b) Wallace failed us, this is an example you probably won’t hear cited from the most of the mainstream media. But this is not the sort of question that Biden should get a pass on dodging. As the editors of the conservative National Review note, “There are some questions in American politics that require a reflexive, emphatic, uncomplicated answer. ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer of power?’ is one. ‘Will you pack the Supreme Court?’ is another. That both candidates for the highest office in the land are struggling to answer such inquiries without meandering non sequiturs or craven demurrals is a disgrace.”
The public has a right to know if a President Biden would enable a norm-breaking progressive agenda that would not only radically impact public policy in the short term, but would also set a precedent that could spiral out of control for decades. At the very least, refusing to answer this question should come with a modicum of shame, media criticism, and public disapproval. Yet, Trump’s unhinged behavior, coupled with Wallace’s desire to move on to another topic, allowed Biden to weasel out of giving a satisfying answer, without suffering any consequences.
I don’t want to absolve Biden of his responsibility here, but let’s imagine how this might have played out if Trump had remained silent. Wallace, being a self-respecting journalist, would have had every incentive to ask a tough follow-up question (or two), including the obvious ones: “But don’t you think the American people have a right to know if you’ll kill the legislative filibuster and pack the court,” and “Don’t you think you have a responsibility to be up-front about your intentions if elected president?”
Biden might have felt compelled to at least hint one way or the other. Regardless, letting things breathe a little would have put him on the spot, calling our attention to his ducking the question. It’s possible Wallace might even have evinced some hint of anger or frustration at Biden for being so evasive. It might have ended up being a memorable moment, instead of just one of the many segments that faded in our memory, amid the chaos, interruptions, and crosstalk.
Indeed, appearing on the “Hacks on Tap” podcast right after the debate, former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs dinged Biden for sidestepping the issue. “Can we just get an answer on court packing?” Gibbs asked. “If your answer is, ‘Well if I give you an answer, that’s going to be an issue’—it’s a debate. I mean, let’s have a debate for chrissakes!” he continued, adding: “I thought it was the one really kind of terrible moment.”
Except, it was a terrible moment that few will remember, because Wallace let the obfuscation slide, and because Trump’s childish behavior overshadowed the whole night, providing Biden an escape hatch.
Of course, there are numerous logical reasons why Biden wants to avoid commenting on this topic. (1) Maybe he wants to keep his options open. (2) Maybe he wants to use threats of a nuclear option as leverage to force Republicans to make other compromises during negotiations. (3) Maybe he has already decided to go nuclear, but realizes that it would be extremely unpopular with voters. (4) Maybe Biden wants to go nuclear, but realizes he won’t have enough votes, even if Dems take the Senate. Or (5) maybe Biden has decided he won’t pack the courts—but wants to prevent angering his progressive base. All of these are plausible reasons for not wanting to answer the question, but none of them should deter the public (or Wallace) from insisting that it is the responsibility of a presidential nominee to do so. (Note: After the debate, Kamala Harris also skirted the question.)
Now, Biden’s defenders are right to point out that he has previously called court packing “a terrible, terrible mistake to make,” and that he warned that Democrats would “live to rue that day.” The problem is that the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and subsequent the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett has obviously reignited this debate. With changing circumstances, it’s appropriate to revisit the question. If Biden’s position hasn’t changed, he could simply say that. Wallace might have asked Biden if he “stands by his opinion that ‘court packing is a terrible, terrible mistake to make.’” If phrased that way, Biden might have felt compelled to answer. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Next time.
But make no mistake, there has to be a next time. It’s hard to say how many interviews Biden will grant between now and Nov. 3, but there will ostensibly be two more presidential debates, if the president’s he. If Biden isn’t forced to at least fully grapple this question, it will be a mark against Biden’s claim of decency and normalcy—and an even bigger indictment on the media business.
This is a hard position to take, because Trump’s behavior is so abhorrent and egregious that talking about any Biden sin opens one up to charges of bothsiderism or Anti-Anti-Trumpism. But this is a hugely important topic. The public has a right to know, and the media has a responsibility to demand Joe Biden give us an answer. So, I’ll ask again: Will you pack the courts?
Say it ain’t so, Joe!