The Memo: RNC’s break on debates nudges nation toward factionalism

Washington took one more step toward factionalism this week with the announcement from the Republican National Committee (RNC) that it was withdrawing from the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

The decision came on Thursday, with a statement from RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel asserting that the commission was “biased” and pledging that the GOP would find “newer, better debate platforms” in the future.

The commission has drawn up rules and decided upon moderators for presidential debates since the 1988 election cycle, having been set up the previous year. Although it has been subject to criticism from both parties since then, it has served to ease the arduous process of agreeing to debate formats and making sure the events actually happen.

It bears emphasizing that the commission does not set the rules for primary debates in either party, so those encounters will be unaffected by the RNC’s move. 

But the big showdowns between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees — as well as the customary single debate between vice presidential candidates — will become a lot harder to organize in 2024 and beyond.

The rules for any big debates will have to be agreed upon directly by the rival candidates and their campaigns. 

No one relishes that process in today’s hyperpartisan climate.

“It’ll be very, very challenging — like bringing peace to the Middle East or something,” said Aaron Kall, who is the author of several books about political debates and rhetoric. Kall is also the director of debate at the University of Michigan.

“It was tough even with the commission — and now these alternative players will want to become involved,” Kall added. “Now the monopoly of the commission is over, it is going to be a free-for-all. You’ll need buy-in from the candidates, from the networks. You’ll need agreement on the moderators. The commission did a lot of that.”

Republican objections to the debates and the way they have been run predate former President Trump’s rise to power. 

In 2012, conservatives reacted with fury after debate moderator Candy Crowley, then of CNN, fact-checked GOP nominee Mitt Romney during a debate with then-President Obama.

Trump supercharged the GOP’s sense of grievance against the debate organizers, however. He complained just before the 2020 campaign kicked off that the CPD was “stacked with Trump haters & Never Trumpers.”

He also objected strenuously to the performance of moderator Chris Wallace, then of Fox News, at the first 2020 presidential debate. 

Although the dominant takeaway from that debate was that it had been an unwieldy mess, Trump insisted that Wallace had favored President Biden.

The RNC’s move has been in the works for some time. McDaniel had written to the commission in January warning that the party could withdraw from the commission 

Some of the GOP’s demands were hardly unreasonable. 

One example was a request that at least one debate should take place before the start of early voting. In 2020, the early voting process had kicked off in many states — 26, by the RNC’s count — before Biden and Trump faced each other on the debate stage.

But the RNC has also been demanding for months that it should be allowed to observe the commission’s board meetings.

In January, commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf told The Washington Post that while his organization had been willing to discuss some changes, the RNC had “wanted to control things we aren’t prepared to let them control.”

The issue is bigger than debates, however.

The polarization that has run rampant for the past couple of decades in American politics has hollowed out once-trusted institutions.

The news media is siloed into different ideological camps. The tribalist tone of contemporary politics takes an even more virulent form on social media. And bodies that were once seen as several cuts above the daily political fray, such as the Supreme Court, have been dragged down into the mire as well.

The RNC withdrawing from the debates commission is clearly not as seismic a shift as the polarization of the Supreme Court, but it is another marker on the same road, at least according to critics.

“This is a continuation of the Republican Party breaking political norms,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle Jr. “Yes, their nominee in 2024 can come to the table and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to do debates. Let’s do it this way.’ But to me, this is part of delegitimizing the institution.”

Republicans do not see it that way at all, of course. They argue that Democrats have at times made their own contributions to partisanship even in terms of refusing to hold any primary debates on Fox News, for example.

They also contend that the debates commission could and should have acceded to at least some of the GOP’s requests.

“There has been growing dissatisfaction with the process, with the moderators, with the increasing bias among mainstream media for quite some time,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party in Texas.

“I think this is an example of the party trying to wrestle back control, or at least increase their leverage to demand certain changes,” he added.

But assuming the RNC does not bend, the debates commission seems sure to collapse.

Its absence will make the political process one notch messier and more bitter than it already is.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Chris Wallace Commission on Presidential Debates Donald Trump Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Biden RNC Ronna McDaniel Ronna McDaniel

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