On Thursday, the Republican National Committee voted to withdraw its party’s candidates from participation in the official presidential debates. Their unanimous vote to separate from the Commission on Presidential Debates is historic and comes after months of suggestions by the RNC and its chairperson Ronna McDaniel that the party would do so. While it is unclear whether such a move would bar a Republican standard bearer from participating if he or she chose to do so, such a move is a serious threat to the democratic process. It should also infuriate any potential 2024 Republican nominee who believes they could win a debate against President Joe Biden.
Former Brookings Expert
Director of the Office of Cannabis Policy - Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services
The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsors the general election debates between the party’s presidential nominees (typically in three sessions) and the party’s vice presidential nominees (in one session). The RNC’s decision to withdraw from participation would not impact debates in the party primaries, which are typically formed from agreements among media organizations, a political party, and the potential candidates from a given party.
Why are Republicans withdrawing from presidential debates?
Republican Party leadership has been voicing anger over the rules that the Commission on Presidential Debates maintains and has suggested bias in the process, specifically around choices over moderator selection. Those concerns also extend to the timing of debates, term limits for members of the board of directors, and codes of conduct for staff and moderators. The party has demanded that the process and the commission be reformed.
The scope of reforms and the ability to influence the debate process is important to dissect. There are certain aspects of presidential debates that are set by the commission such as sites, moderators, etc. Other aspects of the debates are negotiated between campaigns and the commission, including minutiae like the position of podiums and the temperature of the air. The bigger picture issues, that (as noted above) RNC complaints center on, are typically determined by the commission’s board of directors. That board is bipartisan in nature and many members have deep experience in politics and presidential debate procedure and history.
The puzzling decision to withdraw from debates
For most presidential candidates, debates are valuable. They serve as a large-scale, long-format means of detailing their plans and policies to the American public. Thus, it is surprising that the Republican Party would opt out of these debates during this cycle. First, it is always challenging for a presidential challenger to get as much airtime as a sitting president. Because of the nature of the office and the committed press coverage to a sitting President, the incumbent already has a leg up on the competition when it comes to delivering their message to the public. While there have been rumors that President Biden may not seek a second term, the Republican Party must operate under the assumption that he will seek reelection. As a result, the presidential debates offer a challenger an opportunity to be on the same playing field—in some sense literally—as the sitting president.
Second, presidential campaigns are always a clash and contrast of ideas, and there is no grander stage for that to be played out than in a debate. There are no other opportunities for presidential (and vice presidential) candidates to face off, directly, across from one another, than in the commission sponsored debates. If a candidate is confident that they are a better candidate, with a more electable set of ideas, and would bring to the office a style and approach far superior to that of their opponent, they should clamor for the opportunity.
Third, Republicans have been quite confident in their debate performances in recent elections. On July 2, 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted his own opinion of the 2016 Commission on Presidential Debate-sponsored events stating, “As most people are aware according to the Polls I won EVERY debate including the three with Crooked Hillary Clinton.” In the following election cycle, the sitting president claimed to have won both debates once again. After the first debate, he told the press corps, “[b]y every measure, we won the debate easily last night.” He even went on to suggest that despite his own desire for more debates, then-former Vice President Joe Biden wanted to opt out. Days after the second debate, President Trump tweeted about his winning, “Debate Poll Average: 89% Trump. 11% Sleepy Joe Biden!” Although, it should be noted it was not clear what poll average or specific polling the president was referencing with that claim.
Even the Republican National Committee chairperson praised Trump’s debating in 2020. Ms. McDaniel’s statement tweeted by the official GOP account insisted that “President Trump dominated tonight’s debate by aggressively highlighting that he accomplished more for the American people…” and the following day noted, “President Trump’s stellar performance” in the second debate. Given this confidence, former President Trump’s flirtation with another run in 2024, and polling suggesting he would be the Republican frontrunner, he should be embracing the opportunity to face off against the man who beat him in the 2020 race.
Fourth, withdrawing candidates from the commission-sponsored debates will not guarantee that those debates will be canceled. If the debate is not canceled and the Republican standard bearer opts not to attend, the event could provide President Biden or whoever is the Democratic nominee in 2024 if he were not to run, unfettered access to the American public. Those types of debates have happened in House and Senate races in which a candidate opts not to participate and either multiple candidates get more time than they would have otherwise, or a single candidate gets the entirety of the airtime.
Withdrawal from the debates is bad for democracy
Presidential debates are an important part of the democratic process in the United States. Failure to appear at one robs the American public from having a better understanding of what a candidate believes on a variety of issues, what that candidate’s demeanor and temperament as president would be like, and what management style he or she would bring to the Oval Office. In a country the size of the United States, the public does not have frequent access to the president or to presidential candidates, and so making an informed decision at the ballot box should require as much factual information about each candidate as is possible. Commission-sponsored debates allow for that possibility. Additionally, presidential candidates these days are kept in carefully protected bubbles in which surprises and curveballs rarely appear. It is at the commission-sponsored presidential debates when the public has the rare opportunity to see a president and/or a presidential candidate forced from that bubble and required to face the public directly.
Particularly in an era of misinformation, disinformation, questionable attack advertising, a social media environment fostered by woefully inept leadership, and a huge cadre of Americans across the political divide who consume news in echo chambers, the commission-sponsored debates serve a vital democratic value. The Republican National Committee should reconsider its decision to withdraw or at least make public that it would take no punitive action against a candidate who sought to participate in the forums. And finally, the Commission on Presidential Debates is not immune from reform or criticism. Where genuine and reasonable reforms or changes can be enacted, the commission should consider them insofar as the integrity of the process is maintained, the changes do not bias a single candidate or party, and the American public gets to hear from the party’s standard bearers.
 As a reminder, during the 2020 cycle, there were three presidential debates scheduled. The initially scheduled second debate was canceled because President Trump contracted COVID-19. The final and second debate was held on October 22nd.