For many Americans, presidential debates are a staple of the political process. Every four years, an independent commission arranges a series of public events for the electorate, giving voters a chance to see those seeking national power field questions and explain their governing visions.
But as regular readers may recall, these quadrennial debates are a relatively modern phenomenon. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in a historic discussion in 1960, but there were no such events in 1964, 1968, and 1972.
In recent decades, political norms and Americans’ expectations have changed, and many simply assume that presidential hopefuls will take part in debates, but it appears that the Republican National Committee has effectively ended the modern era of debates for national candidates. NBC News reported:
The Republican National Committee announced Thursday it had unanimously voted to require GOP presidential candidates to abstain from presidential debates sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen the process for decades.... The RNC will require Republican presidential candidates to sign a pledge that they will appear only at party-sanctioned primary and general election debates, an RNC official confirmed.
According to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, this move is less about debates in general, and more about the party targeting the independent Commission on Presidential Debates, which Donald Trump and his party claim is “biased.”
It’s not, but reality isn’t especially important in this discussion.
According to the Republicans’ new plan, going forward, the party’s presidential candidates will commit in writing to only participating in RNC-approved debates — and the RNC will not sanction events hosted and organized by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates.
A Wall Street Journal report added that the RNC intends to “form a working group 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.’”
To be sure, this isn’t coming out of nowhere. As we’ve discussed, in October 2020, the Trump campaign claimed the commission was secretly supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy (which wasn’t true). A week later, when the CPD announced that the second Trump-Biden debate would be virtual due to the pandemic, Republicans responded with outrage (which wasn’t justified).
In the months that followed, strange Republican complaints about the debate process continued, culminating in the RNC’s newly approved resolution.
It’s still possible, though improbable, that there will be some kind of resolution. Maybe the Commission on Presidential Debates will approve a series of RNC-demanded “reforms,” which would lead the party to back off. Perhaps some future Republican presidential hopeful will ignore the RNC’s policy, agree to the independent commission’s format and schedule, and party officials will follow their nominee’s lead. Maybe a Democratic ticket and Republican ticket will negotiate their own debate plan separate from the commission.
But if we’re being realistic, none of these scenarios is likely to come to fruition. On the contrary, as Republican hostility toward democracy grows, the party is targeting institutions that help serve as our democracy’s foundation.
The Commission on Presidential Debates process was nice while it lasted.
Postscript: Republicans might very well create an alternative debate schedule, with Republican-approved moderators, to be held in Republican-approved cities and venues. When Democratic nominees respond that they prefer the existing model overseen by the non-partisan commission, the RNC will balk and ask why Democrats are afraid to debate. This will be ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.