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So much political arrogance, so little time. National and local. Partisan and nonpartisan.

What, you may ask, does Donald Trump's cavalier treatment of his own COVID-19 infection have to do with local, state and federal incumbents' callous spurn of debating challengers in public?

The easy — too easy — answer is they're all Republicans. The more complete answer is message manipulation.

Trump calls it "optics," and that's what drove him to think it was OK to order Secret Service agents to let him walk out of what was supposed to be isolation at Walter Reed Medical Center and into the back of a presidential armored car so he could ride around and wave to mostly maskless supporters who were magically in place along the sides of nearby roads to cheer him.

As for our three incumbent Tennessee state lawmakers and our 3rd District congressman, it's the shell game they play with local voters: Trumpeting statements about ways they patriotically love and help state, country and voters — but hiding from those same voters when it suits their purpose.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and state Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, "did not respond" to an invitation to virtual debates with their Democratic challengers from the League of Women Voters and the local Daughters of the American Revolution. (The Chattanooga Times Free Press and and WRCB-TV also planned to partner in the debates in that we were supplying moderators.)

It's important to note that these incumbents didn't just say no thanks, we're busy. They didn't bother to respond at all. According to a statement from League of Women Voters, they were "thereby declining the offer to discuss policy before their constituents in this election season." And since there is no debate with just one voice, the debates were cancelled.

Why should we be surprised? After all, on the editorial pages we get about a letter a week from voters who complain they've not seen Fleischmann offer town halls or any other access to them.

But there's more in this manipulation. They don't want you to even know the names of their challengers, and they certainly don't want to help you meet them or even hear directly from those challengers.

So let us bring home the point: Democratic challengers — Meg Gorman against Fleischmann, Glenn Scruggs against Gardenhire, Joan Farrell against Smith and Joseph Udeaja against Helton — did accept the invitations.

Here are their names again: Meg Gorman, Glenn Scruggs, Joan Farrell and Joseph Udeaja. Make a mental note: They want to talk with you.

They don't just want to put out a news release every once in a while, like Fleischmann did on Friday to draw attention to a tweet: "I am praying for a speedy recovery by the President and First Lady from COVID-19."

Speaking of tweet messages, there was a short video from Trump to Americans on Sunday after he was given medicines normally reserved for the most ill patients: "I've learned a lot about COVID. I get it. And I understand it. It's a very interesting thing. And I'm gonna be letting you know about it."

One might hope his COVID experience might help him show some humility, that he might try to demonstrate some kinship with the millions of people whose lives have been damaged or upended by this disease.

But, no. That was apparent later Sunday when he flaunted COVID isolation advice and ordered Secret Service agents to sit in an air-tight car with him and his potentially deadly germs.

These "optics" stunts by our politicians show more than the simple depravity of another narcissistic photo op.

In Trump's case, self-parading is not likely to bring him mainstream support, since once again it shows he's willing to place people in his immediate circle and anywhere else at needless risk.

As for our local politicians, it's clear this was more than just another snub to voters. This was a calculated move to snuff debates with Democratic challengers.

On Friday, when asked individually their reasons for not responding, Gardenhire alluded to last week's presidential debate and said, "These debates could turn into a mud-wrestling event instead of a gentlemen's boxing match where two people face off and it's done properly. I'm not about to give the opposition a 15-second bite to use against me and throw away eight years on what I've worked on."

Gardenhire added that he has agreed to sit down with the Times Free Press editorial board "and go over my record and what my strong points are. And I hope my opponent does the same thing."

Hmm. Maybe we should just say, 'You had your chance. And we saw everything we needed to see.' (And no, that won't happen).

Maybe voters should not forget the ungentlemanly manipulation.

Here are the names to remember: Meg Gorman, Glenn Scruggs, Joan Farrell and Joseph Udeaja. They want to talk with you. They want to see you. They want to represent you.

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