Is This The End of Presidential Debates?

The RNC will vote on a rule change this month that will require candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president to vow not to participate in debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates. This could mean that in the immediate future, we could go back to a period in time when televised presidential debates were not common.

The New York Times reports:

“Republican committee officials alerted the debate commission to their plans in a letter… a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. If the change goes forward, it would be one of the most substantial shifts in how presidential and vice-presidential debates have been conducted since the commission began organizing debates more than 30 years ago.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 as a collaboration between the Republican and Democratic Parties. It is how the major parties took over the debates to give their campaigns greater say in how presidential debates would be conducted going forward.

Though the commission likes to declare itself nonpartisan, it is an indisputable fact that it was founded to be and has long been a joint effort by both major parties, and its membership has largely consisted of supporters of both parties.

At the time of the commission’s founding, presidential debates already had a sponsor: The League of Women Voters. However, in response to the dealings between the CPD and the campaigns for the two major parties, the League dropped its sponsorship ahead of the 1988 presidential election, stating that it had  “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

The League was not wrong about what the presidential debates would become. 

The debates are often used by members of the press for soundbites and gotcha moments, rather than a discussion on critical issues facing the country (e.g. "binders full of women" or analyzing how Donald Trump stood behind Hillary Clinton). The debates also close down the marketplace ideas by only letting two sides be heard, and endorse a manufactured two-party system that most voters want reformed.

The RNC believes the debates have become too biased against the Republican Party. Its leadership has demanded changes to the debates and the way they are conducted. Ultimately, the party wants more negotiating power in the process, complaining that the CPD only negotiates directly with the campaigns.

The party wants more power in a debate process that already protects Republican AND Democratic candidates from outside competition. 

This is not the first time Republicans have threatened to forgo the debates. One might hope that it presents an opportunity to discuss how the debates are conducted and reforms that would make them better and more competitive platforms for voters to learn about candidates and critical issues. However, the fact that the grievance centers around control makes this a slim possibility.

Public opinion has consistently shown that voters want at least a third candidate on the debate stage. Yet, the CPD has allowed a candidate outside the Republican and Democratic Parties to debate only once since its establishment, and that was Ross Perot in 1992. And even when Republicans threaten to pull out, the debate commission does not even consider filling that empty spot with a candidate outside the major parties.

Lawsuits have been filed challenging the debate commission’s exclusionary rules, including a 2015 lawsuit brought by Peter Ackerman’s Level the Playing Field. The challenge was filed against the FEC for acting “arbitrarily, capriciously, and contrary” to federal law when it ignored administrative complaints that the debate commission violated federal rules that require the CPD to use “objective criteria” to determine debate eligibility.

It also challenged the nonpartisan tax status of the debate commission given its deep ties to the Republican and Democratic Parties. The commission has long gone out of its way to not only prevent third party and independent candidates from being on the debate stage, but has had them arrested just for showing up at debate locations. The CPD undeniably serves a bipartisan purpose, not a nonpartisan one.

Yet, no one in the national press is discussing how presidential debates can change to better serve the public interest, even as the future of presidential debates is brought into question with the RNC's proposed rule change. They remain interested only in how it serves the two-party duopoly.