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The RNC's odd case against the Commission on Presidential Debates

The Republican National Committee's case against the Commission on Presidential Debates needs some work.
Image: Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In Final Debate Before Presidential Election
Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during the second and final presidential debate.Morry Gash / Pool via Getty Images

Most political observers can probably picture the footage of the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and conclude that such one-on-one events have been a staple of American politics for over a half-century. But that's not quite right.

In the 1964 presidential election, for example, there were no televised debates. The same was true of the 1968 and 1972 races.

And while debate norms and expectations have since changed, voters may need to prepare themselves for a return to the pre-Watergate era. NBC News reported late last week:

The Republican National Committee is considering changing its bylaws to prohibit GOP presidential candidates from participating in debates put on by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

"So long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a letter Thursday to Frank Fahrenkopf and Kenneth Wollack, the co-chairs of the debate commission.

To be sure, this isn't coming out of nowhere. Last October, Donald Trump's campaign claimed the Commission on Presidential Debates was secretly supporting Joe Biden's candidacy. A week later, when the CPD announced that the second Trump-Biden debate would be virtual, Republicans responded with outrage.

In fact, they're still complaining about it. The RNC chair appeared on Fox News last night and said members of the Commission on Presidential Debates "switched one of the debates to virtual to let Joe Biden stay in the basement."

That's not what happened. In early October — before vaccines were widely available — the then-president was hospitalized after contracting Covid-19. After returning to the White House, the Republican said he was nevertheless prepared to participate in a town-hall-style event, but the CPD concluded that in the interest of safety and public health, the event would be virtual.

This was not a scheme to help Biden, who'd already left "the basement" long enough to participate in the first debate.

What's more, with the benefit of hindsight, we know the Commission on Presidential Debates was being responsible in ways Trump was not: According to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump first tested positive three days before the first presidential debate and he put people at risk anyway.

So why is the RNC looking at this as proof of CPD wrongdoing?

Looking ahead, the NBC News report added:

The RNC said it wants the commission to commit to hold a debate before the start of early voting and agree not to hold any matchups after the state deadlines to mail absentee ballots to military personnel and overseas voters. The RNC is also seeking term limits for the commission's board members and a ban on partisan political activity by officials and staffers of the commission. The party also requested that the commission make its moderator selection process transparent, as well as adopt a code of conduct for debate moderators.

If the commission fails to meet the party's demands, the RNC intends to make official rules changes next month. (Enforcement of the rules remains an open question. If a future Republican nominee decides he or she wants to participate in a CPD debate, what could the party do to stop him or her?)

If recent history is any guide, it's easy to imagine Republicans creating 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 of the alternate model.

The CPD process was nice while it lasted.