John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Opinion

How do presidential debates work?

Jun 6

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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have agreed to two debates leading up to the 2024 U.S. elections, with the first in June and the second in September. That development followed months of public speculation about whether there would be any debates between the two candidates at all and, if so, what those debates would look like.

Watch the above video as Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier analyzes what this says about how debates work and then explores a few of the concerns that Americans have on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.


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The following is an excerpt of the above video:

So with opposition from both parties, why did we end up having debates? Ultimately, it was a political calculation on both sides that led to our speedy debate agreement. Former President Trump, even though his party had disavowed the official commissioned debates, believed that he would have an advantage debating President Biden. He issued an anywhere, anytime challenge to the Biden campaign to have debates.

Politically, this challenge worked well for Trump, as he expressed confidence and openness to debate while the ball was in the President Biden’s court. Then, very suddenly, President Biden’s campaign issued a challenge to the Trump campaign to have two debates with certain conditions: no audience, only certain networks as hosts and not too close to the November election. Perhaps some would have expected Donald Trump to waver or negotiate over the conditions, but his campaign immediately agreed to the debates. So now we will have a June and September debate, and Donald Trump is still pushing for additional debates.

At the end of the day, this process shows that the heart of scheduling presidential debates is a negotiation between both campaigns and an agreement by both that the debates are in their political interest.

{JOHN FORTIER]

It was looking more and more doubtful that we would have presidential debates in 2024. And then suddenly, over the course of a few hours, we reached an agreement to have debates with the first one in June. Why did it look like we would not have debates? What changed to make them happen? And what are the future of debates look like? First, why did it look like we would not have debates? Since 1988 debates have been convened by the Presidential Debate Commission. Typically we have three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. In September and October. The Debate Commission was founded to regularize the debates. Prior to 1988. debates were sporadic. Sometimes incumbent President saw no need to debate a challenger and the number of debates and the details of the logistics were negotiated by the campaign’s often without long lead time. The Debate Commission succeeded and provided an important public service of regularizing debates, because it was an institution that had the participation and trust of both political parties. The original co chairs were recent chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. But while this model served us well, for over 30 years, Republicans criticized the commission for two reasons. And they formally indicated that they would not participate in 2024 debates. The two reasons they cited were that the Presidential Debate Commission needed to have Republicans on the commission who represented the interests of the current Republican Party. And second, they were very critical of debate moderators from the mainstream media, as much more likely to lean towards questions and framing issues from a democratic perspective. After that declaration by the Republican Party, other political dynamics in the 2024 campaign arose that called into question the debates. President Biden’s campaign was quiet as to whether it would participate in commission sponsor debates. His campaign expressed some specific concerns about the way the 2020 debates were held during COVID, including rules about an outside audience and the ability of Donald Trump to interrupt Biden’s remarks with a live mic. So second, so with opposition from both parties, why did we end up having debates? Ultimately, it was a political calculation on both sides that led to our speedy debate agreement. Former President Trump even though his party had disavowed the official commissioned debates, believed that he would have an advantage debating President Biden, he issued an anywhere anytime challenge to the Biden campaign to have debates. Politically, this challenge worked well for Trump, as he expressed confidence and openness to debate while the ball was in the President Biden’s court, then very suddenly, President Biden’s campaign issued a challenge to the Trump campaign to have two debates with certain conditions, no audience only certain networks as hosts, and not too close to the November election. Perhaps some would have expected Donald Trump to waver or negotiate over the conditions, but his campaign immediately agreed to the debates. So now we will have a June and September debate, and Donald Trump is still pushing for additional debates. At the end of the day, this process shows that the heart of scheduling presidential debates is a negotiation between both campaigns and an agreement by both that the debates are in their political interest. Third, what does this tell us about the future presidential debates? A couple of issues still need to be resolved this cycle. Will we have more than two debates agreed to and will a third party candidate like RFK, JR participate? On this question. The debates agreed to retain a standard for third party candidates established long ago that allowed Ross Perot to participate in the 1992 debates. If a third card Party candidate is polling at 15% of the vote in the national polls, that he or she might be included in the debate. Over the years, some have advocated for third party candidates to participate no matter their political support. But the current standard makes sense. If a third party candidate is a major player in an election, then he or she should be on the debate stage, but only if there are major players. Finally, the long term future of debates is clouded with the agreement of debates outside of the Presidential Debate Commission format. 2024 shows how at heart the scheduling of presidential debates is an agreement between the two major party candidates. But that agreement depends on political circumstances and is uncertain. Ideally, we could re establish a commission or more formal process for hosting debates in the future. But any such commission would have to remember that at the core of the process is the political agreement of both party candidates. A commission should not think of itself as independent of an above the political process, but instead, a more formal vehicle for helping the parties agree to debates in advance. It is good news that we have two debates scheduled. We can hope to have more and for the future, we could hope to establish a political process that will make even more certain that we will have debates in the future.

 

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