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RNC Takes a Stand Against Biased Presidential Debates

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

After the 2020 debates (read: circuses) in which President Trump faced off against Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence went toe-to-toe with Kamala Harris, the Republican National Committee is warning the commission responsible for organizing debates that GOP nominees won't be participating in 2024 debates unless reforms are made.

In a letter dated January 13 to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) — the entity that has organized presidential debates since its founding in the late 1980s with the cooperation of the Republican and Democratic National Committees — RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel made Republicans' complaints clear.

Due to what the RNC calls inaction on the CPD's part, the RNC says it will amend party rules to "prohibit future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates." McDaniel explained:

The RNC has a duty to ensure that its future presidential nominees have the opportunity to debate their opponents on a level playing field. So long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere. Accordingly, the RNC will initiate the process of amending the Rules of the Republican Party at our upcoming Winter Meeting to prohibit future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates.

"The RNC’s concerns strike at the core of whether the CPD credibly can provide a fair and impartial forum for presidential debates," McDaniel's letter states.

The CPD's  past "failures" highlighted by the RNC include: 

  • 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

For its part, the Commission on Presidential Debates has ignored the RNC's repeated complaints and requests for reform and accused Republicans of seeking to make presidential debates more partisan, even though the reforms Republicans seek aren't unreasonable. Among them: term limits for CPD directors, a debate before early voting starts, a code of conduct preventing CPD officials from public partisan comments, transparent moderator selection criteria, and a code of conduct seeking to prevent moderators from inappropriate or biased treatment of nominees.

As McDaniel outlines in her letter, CPD's inaction is not for a lack of trying by Republicans. Going back almost a year to March of 2021, the RNC has met with and raised its concerns with CPD leadership. In June, the RNC made its complaints more formal in a letter explaining that "actions have damaged the RNC’s faith that the CPD can provide a fair and impartial forum for presidential debates" and "proposing reforms to address these concerns." 

Throughout 2021, the RNC checked in with the CPD, but no reforms were announced or promised. As a result the RNC is now seeking to amend its rules to ban its nominees for president and vice president from participating in CPD-sponsored events. Instead, McDaniel pledged that the RNC will "take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere." 

It's anyone's guess what that opportunity would look like for the next Republican nominees for POTUS and VP, or whether the Democrats' nominee would agree to a debate outside of the CPD's control. 

While the decision is sure to ruffle feathers at the CPD and in the Democratic party, the choice is a bold one and a long time in the making. Subjecting Republican candidates to biased moderators, special requests from Democrats, and unequal rules is unnecessary and even foolhardy. Remember then-candidate Romney being corrected by "impartial" moderator Candy Crowley? The mic-muting debacle during the Trump v. Biden debates? The absurd plastic barriers separating Pence and Harris? The political theater that has clouded what should be a critical opportunity for Americans to hear divergent visions for the future of the country too often made the moderator or debate stage into the story. And as then-candidate Trump proved in the 2016 GOP primaries, sometimes stepping away from the debate stage to speak directly to voters in a different format can be a winning strategy.

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