What Happens if the Republicans Withdraw from the Presidential Debates?
This could become something to celebrate
Make no mistake - the Republican withdrawal from debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is not some giant repudiation of democracy. It is what happens when you try to get a group to participate in your event by giving them nearly all control over that event. The CPD exists to serve the parties, and at the point where the parties or one party is no longer happy, that’s the end of that organization.
On Tuesday the Republicans announced they will make sure any candidate for President, and I assume Vice President, will sign a letter saying they will not participate in CPD hosted debates. The CPD only controls the 3 Presidential debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates for President, and the one Vice Presidential debate. Primary debates are hosted by news organizations and have nothing to do with the CPD. Their quality is also abysmal, but irrelevant to this conversation.
No need to mourn. This comes after 30 years of the CPD passively doing nearly everything the Democrats and Republicans wanted done. When mistakes were made - like permitting Ross Perot to debate in 1992, they were quickly cleaned up. The CPD does not enforce anything the parties don’t want to do. The only thing the parties don’t really care about is what universities will host the debates. Everything else is totally in their hands, from lighting, to background colors, to the height of podiums. The CPD is as in-charge of these events as a waiter is in charge of a meal.
This is by design. When the commission formed in the mid 1980s, founder Newton Minow believed - and still believes - the Democrats and Republicans should control all aspects of the event. You can think of the CPD as a company like Uber, providing only a place where two people can meet up and make a deal. Uber doesn’t provide cars or drivers or even customers, just a space for them to meet up. Same with the CPD. Minow thinks that the two party system is good, and has set up the CPD to preserve it.
The commission consists of news readers and former elected officials from the two parties, and their supporters. There is not one expert on argumentation, language, oratory, debate, public speaking, or media on the commission (former morning show newsreaders are not media experts). This tells you everything you need to know about the CPD and their view of debate. It’s a smokescreen for the two party system to dominate the issues and control discourse.
I have three viewpoints on the Republican withdrawal that might not be able to co-exist. See what you think:
It’s about time one of the two parties threw a tantrum. All parents know that if you keep conceding to a child they will continue to ask for everything and still melt down when they don’t get what they want. The CPD made this the inevitable conclusion to their work by choosing the path of least resistance, conceding to the two parties at every turn, and not standing up for some practice, theory, or model of the debates that the parties participate in.
The commission has no grievance process. Look at the Trump Biden debates. After the first debate the commission had no idea how to handle a candidate who refused to follow any of the rules whatsoever. Why is there no process? Why no enforcement? It’s because these events are illegitimate events that have no substance of their own.
Look at the controversy over the selection of Steve Scully as the moderator of the debate that didn’t happen. The CPD continuously waffled and had no plan for a backup moderator or any formal process for bias. They also never questioned the idea of using national journalists or TV news personalities as moderators.
Finally in the history of Presidential debating under the CPD, only Republicans have suffered from the CPD format. Look at the inventor of the “gaff,” Gerald Ford. Look at George H.W. Bush, someone who did more televised political debates than anyone (I think this might still be true) and the 1992 Richmond Debate. Look to the controversies over Mitt Romney in his debates with Barack Obama. I can see why Republicans think the debates are biased against them, but they have the wrong reasons. The CPD debates are biased against democratic debate.
The CPD’s Existential Crisis
A lot has changed since the first CPD debate in 1988 and the CPD has not addressed any of these changes: Mobile phones, the internet, streaming devices, podcasting. The Republican withdrawal is excellent as it will force the CPD to get creative if they want to continue to exist. Since Minow is a party shill, there is a pretty good argument that the withdrawal of the Republicans is the end of the CPD since it’s sole purpose was to preserve a two-party debate event every four years. But under Minow’s leadership, and other leadership in the past 10 years, the CPD now helps foreign countries set up executive or party leader debates by request. Horrifying, to be sure, however one wonders why this is the only creative outreach of the CPD in its entire inception. They do little else other than continuously check in on the two parties like a helicopter parent.
If the CPD wants to weather the storm, they are going to have to innovate with activities. They are going to have to stop highlighting the Presidential part of their event and start emphasizing the debate side. This is a great opportunity for everyone to stop all the normal frenetic political wrangling over elections and ask, “What is the point of having a debate in the first place?”
I doubt they will. But I hold out hope that the panic over their coming demise might spark the commission to flail around in hopes of self preservation. The members of the commission are not experts on debating or argument. They are all party hacks. They are television journalists. Their imagination is limited to what they did for their careers. Only a threat of an existential magnitude is capable of getting them to admit they might not know what they are doing, and reach out for professional consultation - then the innovation has a shot.
We’re Better off without them
Perhaps it’s time for the CPD to die. The person who founded the debate commission, Newton Minow, used to work for Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois Governor, who wrote two nationally published articles on the need to use new technology to have a national conversation about political issues, instead of regional or local conversations. The CPD is far removed from this vision, and I believe Stevenson would want a return to the drawing board.
We don’t need the CPD to have a national conversation about issues, we need a forum of some kind to do so, one that is not driven by advertising revenue and algorithms to ensure every turn in the conversation makes us feel good about our ideas. Social media and the commercial podcast space provided a little hope until we realized how much our clicks are not our own - or perhaps too much our own, leaving little space for healthy reconsideration of our views in the light of the narratives of the experiences of others. This is what debate does. We have barriers on all sides to it based on the capitalist demand to profit at all times from whatever is presented, but there still could be a way to hold effective debates.
Instead of the CPD, or Congress, or the FCC controlling debates, podcasting and streaming allow incredible access to the issues. What’s needed is curation by those who are interested in democracy and debate to highlight what’s out there that might be really good. One thing that a national conversation about the issues does is that it provides ways of articulating the feelings people have based on their experiences that can reach other people. If I feel angry about an issue, I might have trouble talking about it with you in a way that will get you to listen. But if I can adopt and adapt an articulation I hear in a national discussion on the issue, I might be able to reach you better, or at least have a fighting chance to do so.
The solution isn’t here, and my idea isn’t the best ever, but anything would be superior to the fake debate events the CPD hosts in the hopes of preserving the two party system, which they all believe to be democracy: Two choices, decided far away from you, will now randomly speak for an hour to help you feel like you have some say. This is not worth having, and distracts people from finding other sources of articulation out there that might help them articulate their own political beliefs.
Those are my three thoughts on this matter, and I hope that no matter what, the CPD really takes a serious hit. We need them to change, vanish, or significantly alter what they do. There are no shortage of ideas about what the Presidential debates should look like, but there is a shortage of good models and ideas, primarily because nobody in the media, the commission, or the two parties has any interest or any idea what a good debate should look like. They are all interested in preserving a particular relationship and distribution of power under the banner of democracy and debate.
My new course on the history of Presidential Debates is now available from Academia.edu. Check it out if you want to learn more!
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