Over the past four decades, nationally televised debates have become an integral part of presidential elections — and sometimes the crucial factor in determining the outcome.
Unfortunately, thanks to Donald Trump, they may now be in jeopardy for 2024.
Since 1988, a bipartisan commission created by the two major parties has managed general election debates, picked the dates, sites and moderators and then worked out logistical and procedural details with the candidates. The parties, working with the networks and other news organizations, have generally run primary debates.
The bipartisan panel, officially the Commission on Presidential Debates, was formed by the two major party chairmen, Democrat Paul Kirk and Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, to replace the previous haphazard system of sponsorship. In the 1960s and 1970s, popular presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were able to avoid debating underdog rivals.
Despite occasional glitches, the system has worked well. Both major party candidates have participated in every subsequent election. When independent Ross Perot emerged as a major contender in 1992, the panel’s procedures were flexible enough to include the Dallas computer mogul. When he was less of a factor in 1996, it excluded him.
Now, the Republicans are trying to manipulate – and possibly torpedo – the system. Or, more accurately, Trump is trying to do so, both on his own and through his allies at the Republican National Committee.
Citing his lead in the Republican primary polls, Trump has spread the word that he may skip the Republican National Committee’s first two primary debates, effectively denying his opponents a chance to challenge him before millions of voters.
“When you’re way up, you don’t do debates,” Trump said in an April New York radio interview, ignoring the fact that heavily favored candidates like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton debated their foes.
The first GOP debate is planned for August in Milwaukee, which will host the 2024 Republican National Convention. Several published reports said Trump thinks that is too early, and, according to The New York Times, would interfere with his plans to spend August at his New Jersey golf club.
He objected to the second debate – at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California in September — because its board chairman, former Reagan aide Fred Ryan, is also the publisher of The Washington Post.
Trump is reportedly also upset because he was not invited to speak at the library’s “A Time for Choosing” series, which the library said was for up-and-coming Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is following up on its post-2020 decision to challenge the bipartisan debate commission, because of Trump’s complaints on its handling of 2016 and 2020 debates.
According to The Washington Post, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel met with the heads of the broadcast networks to determine if they would agree to carry general election debates sponsored by an alternative organization. According to the Post, some said they were open to the idea, provided both candidates agreed.
Trump’s complaints about 2020 were not unreasonable. He said the first debate was scheduled too late, after several states started early voting. And he objected to the selection of Steve Scully, a veteran C-SPAN host, to moderate the second debate.
The reason: Scully had worked for two Democrats, as a college intern for Sen. Joseph R. Biden and later for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. That should have prompted the commission to select someone else.
(Full Disclosure: My wife, USA TODAY Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, moderated the Debate Commission’s 2020 vice presidential debate between Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Mike Pence.)
Trump also complained about a technical problem with his microphone during a 2016 debate, which apparently affected the volume in the debate hall, not for television and radio listeners.
Because any debate decision requires agreement of both candidates, the impasse could threaten debates in 2024, unless Biden agrees to bypass the commission, or the Republicans change their minds.
A case can be made that anything that jeopardizes the debates hurts Trump. He would have the advantage that challengers generally benefit, though some Republicans acknowledge his overly aggressive attacks on Biden hurt him in 2020. And given the reluctance of Biden’s advisers to let him face reporters’ questions, they might be relieved if Trump prevented debates.
The last major presidential candidate who bypassed a debate was President Jimmy Carter, who refused in 1980 to appear because the League of Women Voters included independent candidate John Anderson in the first debate. As a result, the meaningless encounter pitted Anderson against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.
Later, as Anderson’s poll numbers dropped, the league excluded him from the second debate, and Reagan’s unexpectedly strong performance against Carter helped swing the outcome. Four years later, though well ahead in the polls, Reagan debated twice against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.
Televised presidential debates stem from 1960 when the broadcast networks staged four epic encounters between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon. Johnson’s and Nixon’s unwillingness to jeopardize their leads prevented debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972. They were revived in 1976 when both President Gerald Ford and Carter thought them in their interest.
Carter proved correct. A gaffe by Ford, in which he denied Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, may have decided that very close election. Indeed, over the years, debates have hurt more candidates than helped them.
More than anything, that may explain the reluctance of some to debate.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.) ©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.