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The demise of the Commission on Presidential Debates

Norman J. Ornstein
Ornstein headshot
Norman J. Ornstein Resident Scholar for Public Policy Research - American Enterprise Institute

June 12, 2024


  • The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was born in 1987 under Minow’s tutelage. It ran the general election debates from 1988 on, building on a format that had three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, usually on university campuses, with a series of events and programs involving students, faculty, large audiences of foreign dignitaries, and observers, all trying to make debates a fundamental feature of elections.
  • The Commission on Presidential Debates was the catalyst for debate commissions in many countries, including emerging democracies.
  • By moving away from the stellar bipartisan group that has managed debates for the past nine presidential elections, we will lose the guarantee that debates will continue to be a regular, institutionalized feature of our elections.
FILE PHOTO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in their second 2020 presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool/File Photo
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in their second 2020 presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool/File Photo

The father of televised presidential debates was Newton Minow, most famous for saying television was a “vast wasteland” as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President John F. Kennedy. But years before that, as an advisor to Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Newt made the case for debates, and Stevenson, championing the idea, helped make it happen for the first time with the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960.

That was followed by a 16-year hiatus, until, with Minow’s active participation, we got debates back with Ford and Carter in 1976. To institutionalize them, the leaders of both parties subsequently agreed to create a bipartisan structure to make them a regular showcase for elections. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was born in 1987 under Minow’s tutelage. It ran the general election debates from 1988 on, building on a format that had three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, usually on university campuses, with a series of events and programs involving students, faculty, large audiences of foreign dignitaries, and observers, all trying to make debates a fundamental feature of elections. The Commission was the catalyst for debate commissions in many countries, including emerging democracies.

Debates International, representing 40 democracies and nascent democracies, said this in a statement about the Commission:

The CPD does not simply organize debates. The Commission establishes standards for integrity and professionalism that inspire debate organizers across the globe. The CPD’s commitment to transparent and participatory democracy reaches beyond U.S. borders. It offers a model to follow for both emerging and strong democracies.

The CPD debates are a testimony to the power of democracy. They provide a neutral and accessible platform and guarantee that the electoral process is representative of the will of the American people. This platform has been key to building more robust democracies around the world, inspiring leaders and citizens to value and defend electoral transparency.

At different times in the past, I have participated in CPD programs at presidential debates—at University of Massachusetts Boston in 2000, University of Miami in 2004, Hofstra University in 2012 and University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2016. My wife, son, and I also attended the first presidential debate in Cleveland in 2020. The CPD has also been supportive and helpful in the summer debate camp our Matthew Harris Ornstein Foundation has sponsored for public school kids in the DC area—including letting the students in our first camp, in 2015, use the actual podiums Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used in 2012.

The Cleveland experience was, to be sure, a traumatic one. The Commission and the Cleveland Clinic had put in place stringent COVID-19 protocols. Attendees were tested that morning with results that afternoon, with the full monty, not instant, tests. The audience was small, with seats having separation and with excellent ventilation. Masks were required. We sat in the audience not far from where the Trump entourage came in, sat down, and removed their masks. A Cleveland Clinic doctor went over to them—Trump family and staff—and asked them to follow the protocols and were met with a figurative middle finger of defiance. Trump’s congressional guests, including Jim Jordan and Marsha Blackburn, walked around maskless, delighting in flouting the rules. And we learned later, to our horror, that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 before the debate, a despicable and reckless violation of rules and standards.

Many criticized the Commission for allowing this fiasco. But sitting there, in the venue, I realized that Trump and his guests had put the Commission in a no-win situation. They first had accepted the assurances of the Trump campaign that he and the others had tested and tested negative—they had, in fact, not arrived early enough for the Clinic to do the clinical test. And if the Cleveland Clinic representative had tried to eject the Trump group from the debate set right before it was ready to start, it would have created a scene that would have been seized upon by Trump and destroyed the entire debate process.

Of course, we had the debate itself, where Trump screamed, shouted, interrupted, lied, kept talking long after his allotted speaking time was up, and bullied moderator Chris Wallace. But as I viewed the debate after, not in the live moment when I was nauseated by the spectacle, two things stood out. First was that viewers—voters—had seen Biden being calm and collected and with a grasp of the issues as Trump ranted and dissembled. Second was a seminal moment: when Chris Wallace asked Trump about white supremacist groups and specifically the Proud Boys, he defended them and gave them the message “Stand back and stand by.” When January 6 occurred, and the Proud Boys were at the center of the violent insurrection, Trump’s debate statement tied him even more directly to the effort to overturn the election.

Like many others, I have my own critique of the debate structure. I would like to see questioners who are experts, not just prominent journalists, who, no matter how capable, do not have the depth to follow up on shallow assertions by candidates with second and third probes, or to contradict every misstatement or distortion. And it is clear that moderators must have the ability to cut off the microphones of candidates who violate the rules by talking over their opponents or talking well beyond their allotted times.

Perhaps the two debates that Trump and Biden have agreed to do outside the Commission’s aegis will come off well, with ground rules that at least allow the mike cutoff (assuming Trump will show up without the ability to bully without consequence the moderator and his opponent.) But by moving away from the stellar bipartisan group that has managed debates for the past nine presidential elections, we will lose the guarantee that debates will continue to be a regular, institutionalized feature of our elections. Candidates will have an easier time avoiding debating when there is no structure in place in advance. We will lose the link that other countries have relied on to legitimize debates, and the value to college campuses, students, and many others for having the debates and the programs that accompany them.

Whatever their flaws, debates do give us some window into the candidate’s perspectives, and they are especially valuable for voters who generally pay little or no attention to politics. And even for those of us who follow politics for a living, debates are often illuminating. We should work with the Commission to reform its processes to make the debates better. But I am certain that if the CPD disappears, we will regret it down the road.

Author

  • Footnotes
    1. Statement issued May 18 by Debates International (debatesinternational.org) translated into English by Mario Lopez of Guatemala