The RNC Finally Grows a Pair on Presidential Debate Reforms

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

For as long as I can remember, Republicans have been loudly (and rightly) complaining about the format of the presidential debates. Chief among the complaints have been liberally biased moderators (an ongoing issue), the partisan commentary about the candidates from some of the people who are selected to be on the supposedly non-partisan “Commission on Presidential Debates” (also an ongoing issue), and the timing of the debates (in 2020, the first of what ended up being only two presidential debates did not take place until after early voting had started).

For lack of a better way to put it, the CPD is more or less the governing body on presidential and vice-presidential debates, and though nominees and their campaigns can demand changes in individual cases and sometimes are successful, ultimately the CPD has the final word as to the scheduling, the players in the game, and so forth.

Presidential nominees have the option of not agreeing to or backing out of a debate commitment if they deem the process unfair, but that doesn’t often happen because they’d rather have the air time instead. This has led to frustration on the part of Republican voters, who see participation in an event they know has been deliberately skewed in one direction as giving the process legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

After the 2020 debates, however, it appears the Republican National Committee finally grew a pair on this issue. Over the course of the last nine months, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has been playing hardball with the commission to get them to make changes:

The failures McDaniel and the RNC wanted to be addressed were as follows, according to a recent letter sent to the commission:

-Waiting until after early voting had already begun to host the first presidential debate;
-Making unilateral changes to previously agreed-upon debate formats and conditions, in some cases without even notifying the candidates;
-Selecting a moderator who had once worked for the Democrat nominee, a glaring conflict of interest; and
-Failing to maintain the organization’s strict nonpartisanship, with a majority of its Board Members publicly disparaging the Republican nominee.

Here are the reforms the RNC proposed:

-Adopt term limits for its Board of Directors, several members of which have served for more than a decade;
-Commit to holding at least one debate before the start of early voting, and in no case after the deadline for states to mail absentee ballots to uniformed and overseas voters;
-Enact a code of conduct prohibiting CPD officers, directors, and staff from making public comments supporting or opposing any candidate, or otherwise engaging in partisan political activity in connection with the presidential election, with meaningful consequences for violations;
-Establish transparent criteria for selecting debate moderators that would disqualify individuals from consideration who have apparent conflicts of interest due to personal, professional, or partisan factors; and
-Enact a transparent code of conduct for moderators in conducting debates, including guidelines for appropriate interactions with the participating nominees, with meaningful penalties for violations.

McDaniel says that after numerous communications including in-person meetings over the last several months, the commission still won’t firmly commit to anything, and likely will continue delay tactics until it’s too late to implement meaningful reforms in time for the 2024 presidential debates. As a result, she says the RNC will soon decide at its winter meeting whether or not their presidential nominees will participate in future CPD-sponsored presidential debates.

The Usual Suspects are likely to view this as a “sour grapes” effort on the RNC’s part, but again, the displeasure with the debate format pre-dates Trump’s time in office and goes back to at least a decade prior to the start of his presidency. But things that happened during the 2020 general election campaign made it imperative that Republicans insist on changes to how the commission organizes and plans debates, with one of the more noteworthy incidents being C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, who was supposed to be the moderator for the second debate, openly displaying anti-Trump bias on Twitter in a conversation he obviously meant to be private between himself and Trump basher Anthony Scaramucci.

In addition to that was the fact that Scully once worked as an intern for then-Senator Joe Biden and was also a staff assistant for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. He also pushed Never Trump op/eds and has published a few pictures on social media of him warmly posing with Biden at Biden family retreats. In no way was he qualified to be a “neutral” debate moderator but yet he was selected anyway.

The RNC is now saying “no more” to such things, and rightly so.

As to what the RNC’s alternative to presidential debates will be in 2024 if they can’t get the changes they want, the New York Times reports that “it remains to be seen.” But I must admit that it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all if presidential debates went back to either being negotiated the way they used to be – directly between the two nominees and their respective campaigns or not held at all.

Why? Because in addition to presidential debates being skewed to favor Democrats, they’re also highly scripted affairs right down to the audience members and the questions. Plus, people put way too much importance on the way a candidate “looks” – if he or she is sweating, looks nervous, huffs and puffs, etc. While that can be entertaining and good for some laughter or tears, we’re not electing a reality show contestant to the White House, we’re electing the next president and they should be judged on the issues and not superficial things, certainly not based on a fly on their head or how much help the moderators give them.

For those interested, the full letter McDaniel sent the commission can be read below:

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