Are debates for America’s highest office now a thing of the past?
The Republican National Committee now plans to make future GOP candidates for president “sign a pledge not to participate in any debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates,” or CPD, The New York Times reported in January.
The CPD has run general election presidential debates since wresting control of them from the League of Women Voters in the late 1980s. Although it’s often characterized as a “nonpartisan” group, “bipartisan” would be more accurate.
The CPD was created by the chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees in 1987. That let the two major parties exclude third party candidates (like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader) and allowed them — not the truly nonpartisan League of Women Voters — to set the rules.
Corporate news networks offer moderators and air the debates under the CPD’s authority, but they submissively allow the two major parties to dictate the rules — including vetting the moderators. Those CPD-approved moderators often adopt a corporate, even right-wing framing for many of their questions.
One could reasonably ask whether this matters.
After the disastrous 2020 debates, in which Donald Trump’s refusal to follow any rules of debate (or common decency), many pundits called for the CPD to allow moderators to simply cut participants’ microphones. But that was never going to be a solution, given a media obsessed with the appearance of even-handedness.
By two different counts, Trump was responsible for more than three-quarters of debate interruptions. Most journalists would cringe at the idea of cutting off one candidate three times more than the other, no matter the facts. But cutting them off equally would clearly be absurd.
Debates — from high school debate clubs to presidential debates — are predicated on certain assumptions: that each person has a right to be heard, that claims must be supported by logic and facts, and that debaters are not entitled to their own facts. When one candidate refuses to acknowledge or play by these rules, no amount of tweaking will change the outcome.
But there’s a bigger problem: Trump wasn’t just disrespecting the rules of debate. He was also a sitting president deliberately casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election and issuing directives to white supremacist groups (like “Proud Boys, stand by”) from the debate stage.
Giving “nonpartisan” platforms to candidates who express views like these isn’t just unhelpful to voters — it’s dangerous. And it’s not just Trump. Nearly the entire GOP has now thrown in with the authoritarian wing of the party.
The corporate press hasn’t been treating the GOP’s hard shift to authoritarianism as the emergency it is, but these journalists still largely traffic in facts that the GOP is working hard to deny and wall off their own voters from.
It’s hard to imagine the party being willing to face even the minimal real-time fact checking that debate moderators have occasionally offered. (Recall that Trump threw a fit over Fox News’ Chris Wallace being given a moderator slot in the 2020 debate.)
At the same time, the GOP resistance to a commission their own party helped form and continues to influence sends a clear message about their willingness to engage in even a flawed version of democratic debate.
Voters deserve to know where candidates stand on the issues. At one point, a truly independent debate format might have been the answer, but that no longer feels adequate.
While we shouldn’t mourn the apparent end of the CPD debates, we must insist that our news media cover the GOP’s unabating authoritarian push — not just on debates, but voting rights, election security, the January 6 investigation, and so forth — with the same level of relentlessness.