One of the most important moments of any US presidential election — the televised debate — was thrown into jeopardy by the Republican Party’s decision on Thursday to withdraw from the Presidential Debates Commission.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) complained that the group, which has been conducting the debates since 1988, is biased and refuses to pass reforms. She promised to “find newer, better platforms for debate” in the future.
The long-threatening move was a testament to the RNC’s continued eagerness to accommodate the wishes of former President Donald Trump, who has complained endlessly about the timing and formats of debates and the choice of moderators.
But in a week when the Democratic National Committee also decided that Iowa and New Hampshire were no longer guaranteed to be first in the party’s nomination process for president, it was also a reminder that seemingly unchanging traditions are fragile.
The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 as a nonprofit organization sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans to codify debates as an integral part of presidential elections.
But it has been criticized from various quarters. Republicans in particular have complained that they favor Democrats since the debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney a decade ago.
Trump, as always, took the complaint to a new level, refusing to attend the second of three debates with Joe Biden in 2020 after the commission made it virtual following the then-president’s coronavirus infection.
“He has a longstanding dispute with the commission,” said Aaron Kall, director of debates at the University of Michigan. “He thinks the composition is a bunch of Never Trumpers and the cards were stacked against him and they didn’t shake him fairly.
“In a way, not having this particular commission involved is a negotiating ploy. I think there will probably still be some debate, but there will be negotiations over time and place and who the moderator is. So if he’s the candidate again, that could give him more leverage.”
The RNC is chaired by Ronna McDaniel, a Trump loyalist who has proven determined to get his way. Earlier this year, the RNC reprimanded Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two Republicans who broke with Trump to sit on the House selection committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot in the US Capitol.
Should Trump be the party’s nominee in the 2024 presidential election, McDaniel would no doubt push hard for debates to suit his whims — a potentially tough and complicated negotiation with TV networks, social media companies, think tanks, or other entities.
Kall continued, “The Presidential Debate Commission has done this for the last few decades, but it wasn’t the first; they will not be the last. I don’t think anyone will shed a tear if the debates we are having in the next cycle are not sponsored by the Commission.
“But it’s going to be kind of a wild west and everyone will want to be involved in a debate. They reach tens of millions of viewers. There are very few events today that are respected in debate given how divided we are. We basically have the Super Bowl, presidential debates, the inaugural address, the state of the nation — it’s very rare.”
The value of debate has been questioned in this highly partisan, fragmented media age. That month, Republican Herschel Walker and Democrat John Fetterman skipped the primary in Georgia and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Now the Commission on Presidential Debates may have passed its sell-by date. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Policy at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, said: “I’m just surprised it’s taken this long. It’s really all about Trump, but there’s another group of people that’s been looking at that, and the whole system is outdated and run by the same people who have been running it for decades.
“That’s what I’m kind of torn about. I certainly don’t agree with Trump’s reasoning, but I think the system needs to be shaken up. It won’t because they’re just trying to avoid difficult questions and they don’t want neutral moderators and reporters asking questions. They will want partisans. They want the hosts on Fox’s morning show.”
Presidential debates were first made famous in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but didn’t happen again until 1976. Sabato added, “We actually had 16 years there without presidential debates until they resumed because both candidates needed them in 1976.
“We thought for a while that it was so well established that candidates couldn’t avoid debate; they would have to participate. Well, that just goes to show, nothing lasts. It doesn’t hurt anyone to say no. All they have to do is tell their partisans, ‘This thing is stacked against us. You know what those horrible media people are like.’”