Republicans threaten to skip traditional general election debates

Domenico Montanaro | January 13, 2022
Then-candidate Joe Biden walks on stage to begin the first presidential debate in September 2020. The 2020 faceoffs may be the last of their kind.
Then-candidate Joe Biden walks on stage to begin the first presidential debate in September 2020. The 2020 faceoffs may be the last of their kind.Julio Cortez | AP

Updated January 13, 2022 at 2:24 PM ET

This may be the end of presidential debates as we have known them.

The Republican National Committee has informed the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted presidential and vice presidential debates for general elections for over three decades, that it will change its rules to prohibit the party’s nominees from participating in CPD debates.

In a letter dated Thursday, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel outlines many objections and accuses the CPD of stonewalling the RNC’s requested changes to the process and of being biased. Her letter includes a number of suggestions for fixes.

“The RNC has shared our concerns with the CPD in good faith, carefully documenting why the party and its voters have lost faith in your organization, and we have proposed commonsense reforms that would restore trust in the debates process,” McDaniel writes. “Unfortunately, neither the tone nor substance of your latest response inspires confidence that the CPD will meaningfully address the serious issues which the RNC has raised.”

As a result, McDaniel writes, 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 CPD provided the following statement in response:

“The CPD deals directly with candidates for President and Vice President who qualify for participation in CPD’s general election debates. The CPD’s plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues.”

Some of the RNC’s complaints listed in its letter include:

  • holding the first debate after early voting had begun;
  • accusing the commission of “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”;
  • the CPD’s failure “to maintain the organization’s strict nonpartisanship, with a majority of its Board Members publicly disparaging the Republican nominee.”

The debate commission’s current co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, served as Republican Party chair in the 1980s.

A history of debate over debates

Before there was a commission for the debates, with the intent to bring some standardization, there was no guarantee candidates for the major parties would even participate.

After the first televised debate in 1960, in which Richard Nixon appeared sweaty and nervous against the younger and more telegenic John F. Kennedy, Nixon didn’t participate in debates in 1968 and 1972 — elections Nixon won.

The debate commission didn’t form until 1988, with the support of the chairs of both the RNC — then Fahrenkopf — and the Democratic Party’s Paul Kirk.

Through the years, there have been disagreements with the commission over debate rules, frequency, moderation and participants. Third-party candidates, for example, have been routinely disqualified because they haven’t reached certain thresholds in national polls.

Democrats were irritated with the commission in 2012 during President Barack Obama’s reelection. They saw moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour, who had long moderated presidential debates, as letting Republican nominee Mitt Romney run roughshod over the ground rules, the moderator and the sitting president.

There were complaints from Republicans later in those debates about moderator Candy Crowley, then of CNN, interjecting and correcting something Romney said.

In 2016 and 2020, with Lehrer retired and no longer moderating and Donald Trump as the GOP nominee stretching the truth and the boundaries of debate behavior, the floodgates opened.

The Republican Party sought ways to limit who could moderate and how they should do so. Similarly to the outlined complaints in Thursday’s letter, the GOP alleged bias within the commission because of comments from several people affiliated with the organization who had been critical of Trump.

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