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May 17, 2024, 12:55pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Why Biden and Trump ditched the Commission on Presidential Debates

US President Donald Trump Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate of 2020 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020.
Jim Bourg/AFP via Getty Images
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The Scene

Over a few busy hours on Wednesday morning, the Biden and Trump campaigns agreed to two presidential debates, made a bipartisan debate commission irrelevant, and locked in rules that will likely keep third party candidates offstage.

The breakthrough came after years of hard bargaining, started by Republicans. Two years earlier, the Republican National Committee voted to boycott anything organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Both parties ignored the CPD when it announced its usual suite of three presidential debates, and one vice presidential debate, to be held in the final seven weeks of the election.

Instead, the president and his predecessor will meet at a CNN-hosted debate in Atlanta on June 27, then at an ABC News-hosted debate on Sept. 10 — earlier than any televised general election debates in history, if both candidates stay committed.

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David’s view

By now, people should really stop being surprised when a “norm” gets shattered. The strangest reaction to the bipartisan hit job on the CPD was the idea that Joe Biden, who had run on restoring an old, calm order, had just demolished an American tradition.

That tradition started in 1987; it’s younger than “The Legend of Zelda” video game franchise, and enjoyed by fewer people. And it was always controversial. From 1976 through 1984, presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, which still plays that role in thousands of down-ballot races. In 1987, the chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees colluded to create an alternative, with a permanent budget and the clout to fight back as campaigns argued over moderators and rules.

Why did the CPD replace the LWV? Because the major parties wanted it that way, and the CPD’s offer was more predictable. When it ran the debates, the League invited candidates to suggest moderators; by 1984, that became a minor debacle, as the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale struck dozens of journalists from the pool. (Barbara Walters opened their first debate by chastising the campaigns “on behalf of my fellow journalists.”) Another factor: The LWV didn’t set rules that kept third party candidates offstage, and the CPD did. In 1980, the LWV angered Democrats by holding a debate between Reagan and independent John Anderson when Jimmy Carter refused to participate; it threatened to leave an empty chair onstage for Carter, but backed down. The CPD created a new standard, requiring all candidates to appear on enough ballots to theoretically win the presidency, and to poll at 15% or higher. Ross Perot pulled that off in 1992, and no third-party candidate ever did again.

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When did the major party candidates turn on the CPD? After 2020, when Trump became the first candidate to pull out of a CPD-planned debate after it had been announced. The CPD’s prestige had protected it before that. In 2000, George W. Bush pitched an alternative to the pre-announced CPD schedule: One hosted by the commission, one on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and one on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” That backfired when Al Gore suggested that Bush, then leading him in polls, was trying to shrink the potential audience.

“What’s wrong with the commission debates?” he asked in a CBS News interview. “Is it that so many people are watching?”

Carping about the debate format got more acceptable after 2012, when CNN’s Candy Crowley corrected Mitt Romney when he said that Barack Obama never called the Benghazi attack “an act of terror.” (“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama quipped.) This negated one of the advantages of ditching the LWV for the CPD — the LWV was much more willing to let reporters ask follow-up questions and spar with the candidates. That was the prelude to Trump’s 2020 decision to bail on the second scheduled debate, because he didn’t like one of moderator Steve Scully’s tweets, and a panicking Scully falsely claimed that he’d been hacked.

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One more prosaic reason for the collapse: Early voting. That was one of the main reasons for reform noted in a 2015 Annenberg report, with contributions from Bidenworld’s Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, on how to change the format. And it was central to the RNC’s decision to bolt. Before the 2020 debate, the party adopted Trump’s line that Biden might be so old and addled that it was unfair for ballots to be cast before voters got a chance to see him leave his “basement.”

Can third party candidates still make the stage? Yes. CNN carried over the CPD’s polling and threshold rules — 15% in polls, qualified for at least 270 electoral votes. When the debates began in September, every state’s ballot was set already. This time, the ballot qualification cutoff in dozens of states, including Florida (July 15), Pennsylvania (Aug. 1), and Wisconsin (Aug. 6), is well after CNN’s June 20 deadline.

One impact: Robert F. Kennedy won’t know how many ballots he’ll appear on yet. He’s qualified for states worth 85 electoral votes, and his campaign claims to have met signature requirements in states worth another 129 electoral votes. Even Kennedy isn’t entirely sure what to do with that information. On Wednesday morning, he posted on X that “Presidents Trump and Biden are colluding to lock America into a head-to-head match-up that 70% say they do not want.” Hours later, he posted that he was “happy to report” that he’d “meet the criteria to participate.”

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The View From Members of Congress

House members who talked with Semafor’s Kadia Goba were pretty exhausted by this, too. There was not a lot of nostalgia for the CPD in people’s reactions to their nominees’ decision to negotiate their own pair of debates.

“I’m tired of the debate about the debate,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat who is ten years younger than the CPD.

“I think Trump agreed to him because he knows he’s dealing with Joe Biden and he’s gonna win the debate,” said Texas Rep. Troy Nehls. “And the general election is now June 27. Trump is gonna thump the chump.”

Democrats praised Biden for out-foxing Trump and getting a debate on his own terms with no CPD meddling. “I think the President did a masterful job of setting the standards and the parameters,” said Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar. Asked if Biden was vulnerable because of his verbal slips, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries scoffed: “Donald Trump doesn’t even know the difference between Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley.”

New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew had one regret: Trump wanted conservative moderators, and instead he got Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. “I would have liked it to have been co-hosted by Fox and co-hosted by, say, Newsmax,” said Van Drew, who switched to the GOP five years ago when Trump asked him to. “You’re gonna hear tough questions for [Trump] and, to be honest with you, softballs for President Biden. I don’t know if that’s good. So, I hate that he’s gonna have to be, maybe, debating both the moderators and Joe Biden.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear she was against Biden accepting the debate challenge — but not the specific terms, just any debate with Trump at all.

“I myself would never recommend going on stage with Donald Trump, but the president has decided that’s what he wants to do,” Pelosi said. “I think the format he is suggesting is a good one.”

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Notable

NOTABLE

  • In Politico, CPD co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf says that the campaigns are making a mistake by ditching, that the Biden team has always wanted to ice out the CPD, and that Trump made an impulsive blunder by agreeing to Biden’s terms so quickly.
  • In the Columbia Journalism Review, Cameron Joseph runs through the problems that the candidates might have created by ditching the commission, which was “great for the two major-party nominees and the networks that get exclusives on the debates,” but nobody else.
  • And in Semafor, Kadia Goba talks to Virginia Democrats who are frustrated that the HBCU chosen to host a debate might not get one. Back-up plans: Bringing the VP debate or ABC News debate to Virginia State University, or holding some candidate event.

Kadia Goba contributed reporting.

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