Presidential debates may never be the same — if they even happen

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Republican National Committee last week announced that it was withdrawing from the Commission on Presidential Debates over claims that the organization is biased in favor of Democrats.

The move is the latest escalation in an ongoing disagreement between the RNC and the commission, which became a major target of criticism from then-President Donald Trump during the 2020 election cycle. The RNC chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, alleged in a statement announcing the decision that the commission had “refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates.”

Her statement outlined specific grievances with the commission, many echoing specific complaints Trump leveled at the time of his debates with Joe Biden two years ago. The RNC accused the commission of “making unilateral changes” to the debate format, possibly referring to a mute button that was added after Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden’s answers during their first debate, as well as to the decision to make the second debate virtual after Trump’s bout of COVID-19. That second debate was canceled because Trump refused to participate.

Although they have become a staple of election cycles in the modern era, presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon. The first televised debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, was held in 1960. The next one didn’t occur until 16 years later. In the late 1980s, after some discontent with the way the debates were being run, Democratic and Republican leaders worked together to establish the Commission on Presidential Debates. The organization has been in charge of every major party presidential debate since 1988.

Why there’s debate

Few commentators would argue that the presidential debate format is beyond criticism. Many observers have lamented that they have become increasingly about spectacle over substance. But political analysts worry that the RNC’s decision will mean the end of an institution that, for all its flaws, still provides voters with their only opportunity to see the two competing candidates directly address the issues.

Critics of the decision, particularly those on the left, argue that Republicans no longer feel an obligation to articulate their vision for the country to voters and are attempting to shield their candidates from the blowback that can follow a poor debate performance. As evidence, critics point to a number of high-profile GOP candidates running in this year’s midterms who have skipped debates ahead of the primaries. Others say the move is representative of how thoroughly Trump’s political style, which is in part defined by an abject rejection of any person or group that criticizes him, has come to dominate the party as a whole.

Some conservatives have countered that, although perhaps slightly exaggerated, the RNC’s complaints about the commission are legitimate. They say that ending the commission’s monopoly on presidential debates could lead to a new model that could be more effective at informing voters. Others simply believe that presidential debates are so broken that the country would be better off without them.

What’s next

McDaniel emphasized that the RNC is “not walking away from debates” entirely and said the party will explore “other avenues for candidates to have a free and fair forum.” It’s not clear what alternatives Republicans are considering or whether Democrats would agree to participate.

Perspectives

The RNC’s decision could be a step toward more valuable debate formats

“After 35 years of the commission’s glacier-like grip on debates, it’s time to have a thaw and welcome new ideas and new players. With more than two years to go before the next set of general-election debates, we have time to sort it out. Let the debate over the debates begin.” — John Fund, National Review

Reports of the death of presidential debates are greatly exaggerated

“The usual suspects are hyping this as a GOP attack on democracy and the American way. Where’s the fainting couch? The reality is that sidelining the debate commission will merely put presidential campaigns back in charge. Debate topics and formats will be up for negotiation between the Republican and Democratic nominees.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The country is better off without presidential debates

“It wouldn’t be any great loss … if we skipped debates in the upcoming cycle — and maybe forever. If this is the end of the practice, good riddance.” — Samuel Goldman, The Week

The GOP has no vision for the country to promote in debates

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the entire GOP is apparently behind this embarrassing turn of the tail. After all, the Republicans had no platform in 2020, and they’ll have none in 2024. … This is a party that has very few ideas, and the ones they have are massively unpopular and increasingly detached from the reality of the country’s problems.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

Debates are far from perfect, but they’re still valuable

“To be sure, the presidential debates, watched by millions, have become, increasingly, a flawed and superficial television spectacle. Even so, they remain the best chance for Americans to see their two candidates on the same stage, talking about important issues and responding to queries from independent moderators.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It makes strategic sense for Republicans to stay away from debates

“The media — a traditional arbiter of many debates — is so reviled by Republican primary voters that campaigns now recognize there may be more to gain from criticizing the process than participating. There’s also been a surge in self-funding and celebrity candidates in 2022, whose inexperience at debating and fears of campaign-ending missteps may be leading them to dodge debates altogether.” — David Siders, Politico

The decision is indicative of the GOP’s deeply entrenched ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality

“As for the Republicans? Refusing to participate because of supposed bias fits their long-term agenda of undermining the concept of political neutrality. … It’s one thing to say that everyone has biases; it’s another to say that everyone is either a partisan Democrat or a partisan Republican. That’s never been true in the U.S., and it’s still untrue now.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

It may be a strategic mistake for the GOP to pull out of debates

“Republicans have been quite confident in their debate performances in recent elections. … Given this confidence, former President Trump’s flirtation with another run in 2024, and polling suggesting he would be the Republican frontrunner, he should be embracing the opportunity to face off against the man who beat him in the 2020 race.” — John Hudak, Brookings

Debates can continue without the commission, but there may be chaos ahead

“The Commission on Presidential Debates have been doing it for the last several decades but they weren’t the first one; they won’t be the last one. I don’t think anyone will shed a tear if whatever debates we have in the next cycle are not sponsored by the commission. But it’ll be kind of the wild west.” — Aaron Kall, debate expert, to Guardian

Republicans view any institution that holds defending democracy as a threat

“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.” — Steve Benen, MSNBC

The next version of debates could be truly biased against one party

“Debates — if they happen — would be conducted under rules negotiated and set by political campaigns and parties, without the approval of an independent body. To use one of Mr. Trump’s favorite words, they could be rigged.” — Editorial, Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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