Last week, the Republican National Committee announced its plans to ban Republican presidential candidates from attending the official general election debates sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
according to a Report of the New York Times, there were many complaints on both sides in this conflict as well. RNC officials protested the timing of presidential debates, accusing the debate commission of being biased against Democrats, while debate commission members expressed frustration at the RNC confusing the rules for primary and general election debates — the debate commission only deals with the latter . It’s also worth noting that the Debate Commission typically works with specific presidential campaigns, not party committees like the RNC.
However, the possibility of the RNC asking its 2024 presidential nominee to boycott official debates is still a notable prospect — perhaps no more glaring than the RNC’s decision no party platform 2020 to write. It appears to be a significant violation of the norm, given that presidential debates have been part of the general election campaign for more than 40 years. But then again presidential debates were never one of the most consequential parts of the presidential election campaign. What do you think of this development?
First of all, the RNC’s reasons for banning participation in the debates are important. And that’s because they correspond to an important line of Trumpism: a claim to be the victims from unfair treatment. To be fair, evidence shows that some important cultural institutions, including the news media, are more likely to be populated by Democrats as Republicans, but conflict between presidential campaigners and debate organizers over the journalists who moderate the debates is hardly one-sided — or new. After all, the purpose of debates is to allow voters to see candidates’ performance under pressure and gauge their responses – tensions with the campaigns over how best to facilitate this are to be expected. But this move only further represents the Trumpist Republican Party’s rejection of established institutions and democratic practices.
It’s worth considering for a moment what kind of institution the Commission on Presidential Debates is. It was Founded in 1987, after several decades Disputes over presidential debates – if and when they would take place, who would attend and who would moderate. In other words, the Debate Commission is a product of a very specific time in American politics – when bipartisanship among powerful, established politicians was possible. It also represents the strange ambivalence around political parties representative of the period; The Debate Commission works with individual presidential campaigns, not parties, and demonstrates the candidate-centric nature of presidential politics during this period. However, the Debate Commission has also been criticized for having a high polling threshold of 15 percent, making it difficult for third-party candidates to participate. Only one candidate outside of the Republican and Democratic parties, Ross Perot, has qualified for the debates since the formation of the debate committee.
While commentators ponder whether debates matter at all, presidential candidates have certainly pretended to do so. Main contenders and front runners — especially incumbents – have sometimes refused to debate. Campaigns have also set Restrictions on Debates and seeks to cope with the issues that its candidates will face. and third party candidates, like those of the Greens and Libertarian parties, have been pushing for it involvement in the debates, sometimes to the point of complaints.
The dispute over debates somewhat reflects the assumptions of a bygone era when party designations were less important and debates may shed light on the issues or leadership qualities of candidates. There are now fewer voters to win, and among those committed enough to follow debates, most have already made up their minds.
So what would be different if Republicans refused to participate in the next round of presidential debates? One possibility is a more stable campaign, even if the result doesn’t change much. Analysis here at FiveThirtyEight suggests that debate drives the polls — it’s just that these “blowbacks” don’t usually last long. It’s possible that this kind of campaign stability benefits some candidates over others. It is also that in our era of increased polarization and in a particularly close race, the presidential election is much closer, everything can be important.
The bigger stake of this decision, however, is whether the Republican Party can continue to withdraw from institutions it cannot control without major consequences. This is particularly important for the core democratic values showcased at these events. Candidates show their acceptance of a legitimate opposition by appearing on stage in a civil exchange with their opponents. For the two major parties, this was generally a regular feature of debates, even when heated. They also signal their commitment to accountability by taking on moderators’ questions, showing voters what they know and don’t know, and how well they function under pressure. But in this case, the GOP is taking an old, bipartisan tradition of unease at this exam to a new level.
We don’t know exactly what would change if there were no presidential debates. Nothing may change. The RNC’s latest move, however, shows just how willing the party is to break away from practices that exemplify core democratic values and from established institutions that once enjoyed bipartisan approval and support. For a political party to withdraw from presidential debates – years in advance – signals a further retreat from the basic ideas of democracy.