This is such an absurd argument that it’s almost no surprise at all that the Washington Post features it today. In his essay, the otherwise estimable former Senator John Danforth lays out the case that the Commission on Presidential Debates has so much value as an institution for elections that Donald Trump’s criticisms of it are tantamount to an attack on democracy itself.
Gee, how did we manage to hold elections before the CPD?
The president’s campaign attacked moderator Chris Wallace as “terrible and biased.” Its senior adviser, Steve Cortes, accused the commission of a “scheme to protect their preferred candidate,” and one of Trump’s strongest champions, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), branded the commission “a disgrace.” The claim is that the commission is composed of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans who — through their selection of moderators, their decision to make the town-hall meeting virtual, and (in the latest accusation) through the moderator’s selection of subjects for the final debate — have corruptly tilted the scale. …
It is always fair to question any organization’s decisions, and the Commission on Presidential Debates is not above criticism. Some have suggested we should have postponed the town-hall debate until we were certain the president couldn’t spread the disease. Some have said we should have done better at communicating with the two campaigns. But there’s an enormous difference between criticizing good-faith efforts and accusing the commission of corrupt favoritism. The first is helpful for improving our work. The second destroys public confidence in the most basic treasure of democracy, the conduct of fair elections. The second paves the way to violence in the streets.
It is not the honor of the commission that is at stake here. What is at stake is Americans’ belief in the fairness of our presidential debates and, in turn, the presidential election. When that faith is undermined, the damage to our country is incalculable.
Needless to say, this is quite an ironic argument coming from a 26-year member of an unelected panel with accountability to no one. It’s also quite an expansive view of a mediation mechanism whose entire raison d’être is to provide a negotiating space to set up these game-show events. That’s it; that’s its entire purpose. It is supposed to negotiate those terms between the two campaigns, not dictate terms to either of them. It has no authority at all except that given by the campaigns and political parties, all which could choose to bypass the CPD and negotiate directly — and probably should.
Danforth’s 26-year career as a member of the CPD illustrates just how unaccountable it is. Trump might have been wildly mistaken about bias, as Danforth argues, but he’s not wrong about the barnacle-like status of its members. Danforth started on the board two years before Bob Dole won the GOP presidential nomination — the same Bob Dole who also complained last week that the CPD is out of touch with the electorate and the campaigns. How is Danforth even still on this board? How often do they bring in new voices? Has the composition of the CPD changed to reflect the more progressive nature of the Democratic Party and the more populist shift within the GOP? Don’t expect any answers from checking the CPD website, whose design appears to have last been addressed in the Bush 43 administration.
The CPD exists only because the two major parties wrested control of the presidential debates in 1987 away from the League of Women Voters, specifically so that they could set the terms of the debates to best protect their candidates. The RNC and DNC created the commission as a way to balance out the interests of both parties, in more ways than just choosing moderators and formats. That includes locking out any but the most significant outsider/third party challengers, using a standard which has been repeatedly challenged in court and defended vigorously by the CPD. Danforth fails to mention CPD’s mission in locking out third parties in elections, perhaps because it doesn’t line up with his argument that the CPD is an institution of access and balance.
Danforth mentions that the CPD is “not above criticism,” but that’s precisely how his argument positions the panel. Criticizing the CPD isn’t an “attack on elections,” even if the criticism is wrong or mean-spirited. Criticism is literally the only accountability the CPD has. Danforth apparently wants to put CPD on a higher institutional pedestal than Congress or the presidency, both of which actually get chosen in actual elections and have accountability for their work product.
Let’s paraphrase Napoleon Bonaparte in closing: L’élection, ce n’est pas toi.