This election couldn’t have been handled more poorly by the supposedly non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
After a disaster of a first debate moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who lost control of the candidates on stage going after each other in prime time, the debate commission took a series of steps that would only benefit Joe Biden while hiding behind the guise of public safety to justify its decisions.
President Donald Trump’s positive diagnosis with the novel Wuhan Coronavirus was revealed just more than a full day after the first debate’s conclusion, spiking fears that an infected president on stage two weeks later could turn the town hall into a super spreader event.
Despite the fact that the president was on track for a full recovery, the commission announced the next week without consulting the Trump campaign that the traditional town hall style match-up would instead be a virtual two-hour zoom call between the two candidates, and would still be moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully.
Trump immediately rejected the idea which would only strip the president of the ability to flex his physical presence on stage to engage in a dynamic conversation. Remember in 2016, Trump was accused of intimidating Hillary Clinton on the town hall carpet, which the former secretary of state admitted made her uncomfortable. Trump appeared to deploy the same strategy last month taking command of the in-person debate stage, clearly agitating the frail 77-year-old former vice president. Whether it’s effective or productive is debatable. Whether it’s still a key stripped from the president’s tool box by moving the forum to a cable television-style show by the debate commission, there’s no doubt.
“I’m not going to waste my time at a virtual debate,” Trump said on Fox Business.
Meanwhile, the moderator for the prime time event who used to be an intern for Biden, was caught publicly consulting with fired Trump Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci on how to handle the president in a since-deleted tweet.
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) October 9, 2020
Scully claimed his account was hacked. The debate commission stood by him. The president mocked him.
Steve Scully of @cspan had a very bad week. When his name was announced, I said he would not be appropriate because of conflicts. I was right! Then he said he was hacked, he wasn’t. I was right again! But his biggest mistake was “confiding” in a lowlife loser like the Mooch. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2020
The debate commission responded by canceling the event altogether citing health concerns since the president refused to participate in an unfair format that would only serve his Democratic opponent’s interests while making adequate progress on his recovery from COVID-19. ABC and NBC began making arrangements with the campaigns anyway to host competing town halls on Oct. 15 instead, the same date the original town hall debate was supposed to take place. By the time Thursday rolled around, the president had indeed fully recovered from the coronavirus and was no longer considered contagious. When the candidates each took their respective stages in Philadelphia and Miami, there was no reason why the two major party nominees could not participate in the traditional town hall debate as planned.
Of course, on the same day of the rival town halls which featured Biden supporters advertised as “undecided voters,” Scully admitted that he had lied about the security lapse behind his Twitter account and was suspended from C-SPAN indefinitely.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, run entirely by supporters of the Democratic ticket continued its cascade of decisions made to benefit their preferred candidate.
On Friday, the moderator for this week’s anticipated match-up unveiled the topics for Thursday’s third and final debate, including the omission of foreign policy from what is traditionally the foreign policy debate. The decision came conveniently right after a series of blockbuster revelations would emerge implicating Biden in his son’s overseas business dealings that included officials with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
The topics for Thursday’s final show-down moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker, whose family donated thousands to Biden’s campaign, now include “Fighting COVID-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security,” and “Leadership.” Most of the topics had already been discussed at length in the first debate last month.
On Monday night, the commission declared it would mute the microphones of each candidate Thursday night to cut down on the candidate’s talking over each other to the Trump campaign’s objections.
“It is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield such power, and a decision to proceed with that change amounts to turning further editorial control of the debate over to the Commission which has already demonstrated its partiality to Bide,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien wrote to the commission.
Our letter to the BDC (Biden Debate Commission) pic.twitter.com/ZsY5JfMbT7
— BillStepien (@BillStepien) October 19, 2020
Stepein also condemned the commission from keeping foreign policy off the list of debate topics, stifling discussion over of a primary area of success for the Trump administration brokering an explosion of peace deals in the Middle East.
“We urge you to recalibrate the topics,” Stepein demanded.
By now it’s clear that the debate commission has exposed its own obvious biases on behalf of the Democrats this fall, which calls into question the purpose of having an independent group to organize the prime time events at all if it serves to be impartial in name only. Did the debate commission organize presidential primary debates too? In 2008, Democrats held 26 debates. That same year, Republicans held 21. In 2012, Republicans held 20. Surely the parties have demonstrated their ability to organize debates themselves.
If the nonpartisan commission was only going to serve the interests of Democratic candidates, why would a Republican nominee engage in negotiations that will always be two against one? Why would a Republican nominee subject themselves to the decisions of the Democratic-aligned commission?
In the digital era, one might also wonder whether the current format for presidential debates is even outdated.
On Tuesday, the National Review’s Jim Geraghty made an important point about the state of the current debates which offer a compelling case on why it might be time to re-think how the major party nominees engage in a productive dialogue to benefit the voters.
The questions are usually predictable and generic, the answers have usually been focus-group-tested to the point of terminal blandness. As I noted earlier this year, “many voters and members of the media seem to think caring about a problem — or more specifically, appearing to care about a problem — is the same as having a workable plan to solve a problem. They mistake the destination for the path.” The moderators rarely follow up or press hard for details. No one breaks out the calculators to make sure the proposed numbers add up.
The Commission on Presidential Debates keeps the debates this way the because the candidates largely want them to be this way — safe, predictable, barely scratching the surface of complicated problems and complex topics.
While the debate commission offers each campaign some level of stability, its bias has infected the process for a productive one-on-one dialogue. No smart Republican should surrender the autonomy of their campaign to the deceptively objective debate commission in 2024 to organize what are the signature prime time events of every election.