The end of presidential debates?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It’s for the best. The debates are increasingly uncivil and operate as little more than political bloodsport for the entertainment of viewers. To persist with a tradition designed for substantive engagement on the issues would feel untrue to the spirit of what our dumb, decadent country has become.


If the two parties want to hold a competition before the election, they should do a battle of the memes in which each candidate tries to own the other harder. That’s America 2022.

This doesn’t sound like the end of presidential debates so much as the end of the Commission on Presidential Debates. That’s the nonprofit group that’s organized and sponsored the general election debates that have been held in the fall before every presidential election for more than 30 years. The RNC has been in contact with the CPD over the past year to register its complaints and to demand reform as a condition of participating in 2024. Their latest letter to the committee identified their key grievances from the 2020 cycle:

They’re totally right to want at least one debate held before the start of early voting, although it’s ironic that Republicans would complain about that given how Trump hurt himself at the first debate in 2020 by constantly interrupting Biden. If that spectacle had happened sooner, it might have cost him some early votes that were already banked for him.

The RNC went on to say in its letter that the CPD is guilty of “stonewalling” thus far, refusing to commit to any changes. And so they’re going nuclear: “Accordingly, the RNC will initiate the process of amending the Rules of the Republican Party at our upcoming Winter Meeting to prohibit future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates.”


Is that the end of debates or just the end of CPD-sponsored debates? Or does one necessarily lead to the other?

The Times has more:

If the R.N.C. moves forward with it, it is unclear what that would mean for future debates. But it would change the approach to be similar to what happened before the commission existed, when the two parties or campaigns had to negotiate directly and agree on terms, or no debates would take place…

“The C.P.D. deals directly with candidates for President and Vice President who qualify for participation,” the commission said in a statement. “The C.P.D.’s plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues.”…

Officials with the commission told the R.N.C. in December that one of the party’s demands in particular was unacceptable: having nonvoting representatives of either the R.N.C. or the Democratic National Committee at the commission’s board meetings. The commission wrote that it was still studying that and other concerns the R.N.C. had raised, including the choice of moderators, as part of its review before the 2024 campaign cycle.

It’s conceivable that the CPD will dissolve now that it no longer has Republican buy-in, leaving the two parties’ nominees to negotiate the terms of a debate independently. But who would staff that debate? Is there any moderator whom Republicans and Democrats could agree would be fair? Bret Baier, maybe? David Muir? Jonathan Swan?


Chris Wallace, a star anchor at the right’s favorite news network for many years, moderated the 2020 debate that seems to triggered this RNC boycott. If the hard news side of Fox News is too left-wing for the GOP, there may not be any media common ground left for the two parties to meet on. I doubt the Dems would agree to a debate hosted by Seb Gorka.

I think the incentives for both parties point towards there being no debates in 2024, especially if Trump is the nominee again. Democrats have an incentive to stick with the CPD format, if only to call the GOP’s bluff. Republicans, meanwhile, have an incentive to boycott the CPD debates, “mirroring increasing rancor from conservatives toward Washington-based institutions,” as the Times’s Maggie Haberman put it. In 2024 the GOP candidate will say, “Hell no, I’m not participating in these rigged liberal debates,” and the Democratic nominee will reply, “That’s because you’re scared and have no actual agenda.”

And so there’ll be no debates. Each party will declare victory, with Dems boasting that they’ve exposed Republican cowardice and the GOP boasting that they stuck it to the crooked debate commission. Everyone wins!

But if the calculus happens to change for the RNC over the next two years, they can always revisit today’s decision. In fact, if they end up with a nominee other than Trump, they may have no choice. The RNC works for the candidate, after all, not the other way around:


If the nominee pledged not to participate in a CPD-sponsored debate and then broke his pledge, what would the RNC do, wondered Josh Barro? Answer: Nothing. Today’s letter is mainly about signaling to Republican voters, and of course to Trump, that the current RNC leadership intends to fight for fairness in every aspect of the next election. The eventual nominee will be free to revisit and revise today’s boycott if he or she so decides.

In fact, in a party dominated so thoroughly by Trump, it’s farcical to imagine the RNC taking any action that conflicts with his own choices. If Trump is the nominee in 2024 and wants to do a CPD debate, he’ll do one without a second thought about what the RNC wants. If Trump isn’t the nominee, the nominee will choose to participate in the debates or not in accordance with Trump’s wishes, not the RNC’s. If Republicans nominate Ron DeSantis and a now-retired Trump starts putting out statements to the effect of “Only a cuck who doesn’t fight would agree to do a CPD debate!”, DeSantis will skip the debates, rest assured.


Some parting advice for both parties, though, just in case the 2024 debates do happen: Insist that each candidate take a COVID test before showtime. It could be important!

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