Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pledged Tuesday the RNC would advise future presidential nominees to refuse cooperation with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) after the supposedly non-partisan group operated as a Democrat campaign arm last fall.
“After repeated missteps and partisan actions that underscored its biases last cycle,” McDaniel wrote in a statement, “it’s clear that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is no longer providing the fair and impartial forum for presidential debates which the law requires and the American people deserve.”
At issue was the CPD’s refusal to host a single debate before early voting began in an election that would be decided by less than 43,000 ballots across three tipping-point states. McDaniel is demanding the debate commission pledge to holding at least one debate before voting begins in any state, “and in no case after the deadline for states to mail absentee ballots to uniformed and overseas voters.”
The group’s board of directors meanwhile, made unilateral changes to the high-stakes events often in favor of then-candidate Joe Biden.
It is inexcusable that the CPD waited to host a single debate until after the start of early voting in 8 states, absentee voting in 26 states, and uniformed/overseas voting in all 50 states. (2/4)
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) June 2, 2021
McDaniel said she would urge future candidates to not cooperate with the debate commission absent significant changes.
“The Republican Party needs assurances that the CPD will make meaningful reforms to the debate process by working with the stakeholders to restore the faith and legitimacy it has lost,” McDaniel wrote. “If not, as RNC Chairman, I will have no choice but to advise future Republican candidates against participating in CPD-hosted debates.”
The independent commission could not have handled last fall’s contest more poorly for an organization that claims to be non-partisan. By October, it became clear who the commission was working for, and it wasn’t Donald Trump.
After a disastrous first debate moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who lost control of the candidates trading barbs at each other in prime time, the commission adopted a series of changes all in one direction to Biden’s benefit. The reveal of President Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 the day after the commission’s first debate provided the group with ammunition to implement the changes they unilaterally demanded.
Rather than host the candidates in the traditional town hall format, the debate commissioners announced the second debate would instead be a two-hour Zoom call between the two candidates moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, claiming an infected president on stage would spark a super spreader event.
The boring format, of course, would benefit the boring candidate, stripping Trump of the ability to flex his domineering presence on stage to dictate a dynamic conversation. Four years prior, 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 do the same in September in his first head-to-head match-up with the frail 77-year-old former vice president. Whether it’s effective or productive is debatable, though the in-person dialogue offers the public a glimpse into the style of their commander-in-chief who must be prepared to meet with foreign leaders in the same manner, whether it be in an overseas forum or the Oval Office. Whether it was a key stripped from the incumbent Republican’s toolbox by the debate commission, there’s no doubt.
Trump vowed to skip the virtual format.
“I’m not going to waste my time,” Trump told Fox Business after the changes were announced.
Meanwhile, Scully, a former Biden intern who was slated to moderate the second debate was caught publicly consulting fired Trump Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci on how to handle Trump in a since-deleted tweet.
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) October 9, 2020
Scully said his Twitter account was hacked. The debate commission stood by him, and then canceled the prime time event altogether as the candidates began to make arrangements with television networks for competing town halls. Biden of course, sat down with former Clinton White House press secretary George Stephanopoulos who ignored the fresh scandals to plague his campaign while Trump gave a hostile interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
By the time the date of the canceled debate arrived, Trump had fully recovered from the coronavirus and was no longer considered contagious, which erased any need for the debate being virtual. The candidates’ town halls were each in-person, with Trump in Miami, and Biden in Philadelphia.
The RNC is demanding the CPD establish transparent criteria to select debate moderators to steer clear of those with personal or professional bias against either candidate. The Republican Party is also demanding the debate commission set term limits for its board members along with guidelines implemented to penalize those on the board who make public comments disparaging one candidate or another. A majority of the board’s incumbent members last fall, McDaniel wrote, had publicly attacked Trump in the press.
While the Republican Party throws the existence of future debates with the commission into question, the birth of a new debate format adapted to better fit the modern media landscape holds potential. The traditional two-hour televised debates run by a moderator from a corporate news network fails to meet the public’s needs as questions become predictable met with pre-planned answers.
The Commission's approach creates debates that are unintelligible and with moderators who cannot effectively extract the truth. They are asking 1980s questions in a 1970s format. This must end.
— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) September 30, 2020
The average age of the current board of directors is over 70. As Ben Domenech wrote last fall:
In an era where we get more enlightenment from Charlamagne Tha God interviews and Joe Rogan podcasts than Sunday morning sitdowns, it’s high time we would be much better off with longer answers and a debate format with a minimum of two moderators, one coming from the left and another from the right, asking questions of the candidates that more accurately frame the issues both sides care about. But so long as we have the Commission, that would be a bridge too far.
In September, Trump approved a suggestion to sit with podcast host Joe Rogan and engage in a substantive discussion on the issues with Biden in a departure from the televised format to develop in the mid-20th century. Rogan was open to it, but the Democrats were not.