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GOP withdrawal from the presidential debate commission is another sign of extremism

The RNC’s recent move seems to suggest that the GOP might only propose debate forums that favor the party in some sense.
Photo illustration: Red color cast over an image of 2016 Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, standing in shadow at their podiums during a presidential candidate debate.
What is the Republican Party afraid of, exactly?Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images file; MSNBC

The Republican National Committee voted on Thursday to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, bucking the bipartisan debate platform that has hosted the widely watched presidential debates for decades.

The notion that the commission exhibited unacceptable anti-GOP bias rings hollow.

For observers of the GOP’s slide into authoritarianism, it’s another sign that the party is increasingly hostile to democratic norms and happy to corrode citizen trust in the idea that nonpartisan public institutions are possible.

The RNC said it voted to block GOP presidential candidates from participating in debates sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates in order to to deal with alleged anti-GOP bias.

"Debates are an important part of the democratic process, and the RNC is committed to free and fair debates," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. "The Commission on Presidential Debates is biased and has refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage."

According to The Washington Post, McDaniels’ point about the moderator is a reference to “would-be 2020 debate host Steve Scully of C-SPAN, who was an intern for Joe Biden for one month in 1978, when Biden was a senator from Delaware.” (That debate never happened because it was canceled after Covid concerns forced a virtual debate in which Donald Trump refused to participate.)​

The Commission on Presidential Debates is not some panel of judges who transcend politics entirely and are perfectly neutral — no such organization exists, because making claims about truth requires making value judgments. But it is a bipartisan commission that has held debates since 1988, and it’s not known for ganging up on one candidate. Keep in mind that the first presidential debate in 2020 was hosted by Chris Wallace — a Fox News host. Setting aside the wisdom of that judgment call by the commission, the notion that the commission exhibited unacceptable anti-GOP bias rings hollow.

As a leftist, my criticism of the presidential debates comes from the left — I find the moderators’ questions to reflect political ideologies and priorities that I personally find far too conservative. But if I were running for president, I wouldn’t even think to withdraw from the mainstream debating forum just because the moderators are not on my side. First of all, they’re not meant to be on my side. Second, I’d trust that, as long as I was given fair time to speak, I could win over the public with my ideas. What is the Republican Party afraid of, exactly?

We’re in uncharted territory, and there are a lot of different ways this could evolve.

The GOP has not made it clear what kind of alternatives it would propose. According to The Wall Street Journal, the RNC is looking to “sanction debates based on input from presidential campaigns and criteria that may include timing, frequency, format, media outlet, candidate qualifications and the ‘best interest of the Republican Party.’” That last point is disturbing — it seems to suggest that the GOP might only propose debate forums that favor it in some sense. Which undermines the fundamental purpose of the debate, which is not to deliver propaganda to voters but to share one’s views and let voters decide which political vision they prefer.

As my colleague Steve Benen has pointed out, we’re in uncharted territory, and there are a lot of different ways this could evolve. It’s possible that Republican presidential nominees could buck their own party, and agree to join the Commission on Presidential Debates in defiance of the GOP. It’s also possible that some kind of agreement is worked out between the RNC and the commission. It’s conceivable that Democratic and Republican presidential nominees negotiate directly over debate terms and agree to take turns in ideologically favorable setups in a series of debates. Such an arrangement would be terrible for trust in democracy, as citizens are exposed yet again to the idea that public institutions can’t be trusted unless they exhibit partisan commitment. It’s also possible that they don’t happen at all — particularly if Trump becomes the nominee again.

The RNC’s withdrawal has opened up a rather dire set of possibilities. Let’s hope that this crisis is averted in a reasonable manner.