Of all political rituals, few are as tiresome and threadbare as the debate over debates.
Come election time a candidate and his or her proxies will go round after round with the opposing side, bickering, jockeying and harrumphing over how and whether the political rivals will share a stage and answer questions aimed at prying contestants from their habitual talking points.
It can last for months, in a truly wretched form of Kabuki theater.
Thankfully, for the last several decades the country has been spared the pointless chest-puffing in contests for the White House. Since 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates, co-founded by leaders of the two major parties, has deftly overseen the process, presenting candidates with essentially a take-it-or-leave-it invite to appear before what is invariably the largest TV audience of the campaign — a viewership numbering in the tens of millions.
Now former President Donald Trump and his factotums at the Republican National Committee are trying to blow things up, because apparently subverting the country’s foundation of free and fair elections hasn’t done quite enough damage to our tottering political system.
Oh, and because the commission muted the candidates’ microphones during parts of the second 2020 debate after Trump ignored rules about speaking over Joe Biden and acted like a 12-year-old on speed.
In a letter sent to the commission last week, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the committee was preparing to change its rules to require candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination to pledge not to participate in any commission-sponsored debates, beginning in 2024.
“Our sincere hope is that the [commission’s] repeated missteps and the partisan actions of its board members make clear that the organization no longer provides the fair and impartial forum for presidential debates which the law requires and the American people deserve,” McDaniel wrote, demonstrating a thoroughly Trumpian capacity to pluck authoritative-sounding but fact-free and utterly fatuous statements from thin air.
Although debates have become an institutionalized part of modern presidential campaigns, that was not always the case.
There were no debates in the several elections that followed the 1960 presidential contest, when Richard M. Nixon famously perspired his way through a ghastly showing against John F. Kennedy. The main White House contestants did face off in 1976, 1980 and 1984, but those sessions were held at the whim, and subject to the gamesmanship, of the candidates and their strategists.
It is only when the commission — an independent, nonprofit entity with a bipartisan board of directors — assumed control that debates became a reliable and much-anticipated feature of the presidential, and vice presidential, campaigns. (The free-for-alls held during the primary season are mainly put on by the cable television networks, with decidedly mixed results.)
Over time there have been modifications to the debate format. The commission experimented with the number of moderators and journalists asking questions. Town hall sessions were introduced. Whole segments have been dedicated to a specific topic, to draw a deeper discussion.
Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the commission and a former head of the Republican National Committee, said commissioners remain open to further changes.
“We sit down and talk to everybody,” he said in an interview from his condominium in Palm Beach, Florida. “What we always do in the four years in between [campaigns], we try to say, ‘How can we make this better?’ So we listen to people’s suggestions.”
One proposal sought by the RNC — moving up the first scheduled debate, to account for early voting — makes total sense.
But other demands, including “a code of conduct” for debate moderators, seem aimed more at soothing Trump’s fragile ego than addressing any real problem. Sort of like legislative efforts to stamp out phantom voter fraud, or address the “rigged” 2020 election.
Fahrenkopf scoffed at claims the commission was biased against the GOP. “I’m a Republican through and through,” he said, noting his long history helping lead the party in Nevada before President Ronald Reagan chose him to head the RNC for four years in the mid-1980s.
That said, Fahrenkopf went on, commissioners strive to set aside their partisanship and political beliefs and, trite as it may sound, do what’s best for the country.
The evidence suggests it’s worked.
Some moderators have performed better than others. Certain debates have been more, or less, informative. Each side has found reasons to complain about the rules, or whomever grilled the candidates. (Usually after one or the other got lousy reviews.)
Democrats claimed moderator Jim Lehrer allowed the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, to run roughshod over President Barack Obama. Trump complained about moderators in 2016 and again in 2020, and skipped a 2020 debate after contracting COVID-19 and refusing to take part in a remote session.
Romney happens to be McDaniel’s uncle. (She evidently shed her maiden name to appease Trump, who despises the Utah senator, in one of the sadder acts of GOP self-abasement.)
Romney said it “would be nuts” for the Republican Party to yank its candidates from the fall showcase.
“The American people want to see candidates for president debating issues of consequence to them,” the senator told the media outlet Insider, “and it provides a service to the country and to the people to hear the prospective candidates of the two major parties duke it out.”
This is an instance where uncle knows best. McDaniel and others kowtowing to Trump should pay heed.