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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Opinion

Republican demands for changes to presidential debates warranted

Jun 15, 2023

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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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The Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in 2022 due to what it perceived as biases against its party. Some critics of the RNC decision believe Republican candidates are simply afraid of tough questions and would rather see Fox News hosts as moderators.

Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier believes debates are an important part of the election process, and he argues that some Republican critiques of past formats are valid and calls for changes are warranted.

One controversial change that Republicans have made to their primary debates is to require that all participants agree to support the ultimate Republican nominee in the fall 2024 general election.

Candidates are often informally asked about this during debates but this time the RNC is requiring that each candidate sign a pledge as a condition of participating in the debate.

Not everyone is happy with this requirement, but it is a step toward orienting primary debates in the right direction. The point of the debates and the campaign is for the party to select and get behind the nominee to win in the fall election. There can be many differences within a party but support of the party’s presidential nominee is core to what it means to be a political party.

Most voters take for granted that we will have presidential debates. This year there’s more uncertainty because we are asking appropriate questions about the role of the debates. We will have to make changes to ensure that the American people get to see the debates that they deserve.

The 2024 presidential race has begun. Candidates are already announcing running campaign ads and making the case for themselves and against their rivals. One feature of the campaign that voters have come to expect our presidential debates, both in the primaries and in the general election. Unlike campaign ads or candidate rallies, the debates are unscripted. And one of the few instances that voters get to see the candidates side by side, arguing, making the case for themselves and directly confronting other candidates.

Why while Americans have come to expect debates in the 2024 election, the course of debates is much more uncertain than in any recent election.

This is especially true on the Republican side, where there have been critiques of the way we have traditionally run debates.

In order for presidential debates to continue to provide their important educational role changes will need to be made.

There are two types of presidential debates that I will cover the general election and the primary debates. First, the general election.

Most Americans know of the famous Kennedy Nixon debates in 1960. But we did not see presidential debates again for 16 years.

In the lead up to the 1988 election, the Commission on Presidential Debates was founded to solidify the idea of regular presidential debates. This private bipartisan commission included former chairman of the Democratic and Republican National Committee’s, and other party regulars

typically had set up and ran three presidential and one vice presidential debate each election. For many years, this commission has provided a great service to our country, where in the past, incumbents might skip debates altogether, or the candidates could not agree on debates. The commission because it was trusted by both parties made debates regular.

But for the 2024 election, Republicans have indicated that they will no longer participate in the commission sponsor debates.

Republicans make two criticisms. First, they argue that the Commission no longer has Republican representatives that are close to and trusted by the modern Republican Party. The Republican Party has changed. And ultimately the Republican nominee needs to feel that his or her supporters are part of the commission that sets up and writes many of the rules for debates.

Second, Republicans raised the moderator problem. They see most of the moderators coming from the mainstream media. And while there certainly have been fair and impartial moderators, Republicans pointed past incidents where moderators have fact checked Republicans, or the deletion of the questions asked of the candidates favors Democrats, and even impartial moderators are subjected to pressure to be tough on candidates to force them to answer questions. And Republicans believe that most of that pressure comes from the Democratic side.

These are not easy issues to address. It seems unlikely that the Debate Commission will make changes that satisfy Republicans in advance of fall 2024. Will we have debates? Hopefully, yes. But it may mean that debates will all have to be negotiated by the Republican and Democratic campaigns. The certainty of the dates and the expectation of three presidential debates may be lost.

If the debates are not run through the Debate Commission in 2024, we would be wise to reform the commission for the future, or set up a new entity with trusted participants of both parties, so that debates can be reestablished as a normal.

Second, the primary debates

here it is important for the political parties to assert a greater role. primary debates are different than general election debates. They are about members of each political party, selecting the candidate who can best represent them in the fall general election.

Political parties have too often ceded control and moderation of these debates to media organizations. Again, Republicans are the ones who have the biggest criticism. Think, for example of the recent candidate forum, not a debate that CNN hosted with Donald Trump. Few people were happy with that forum. But Republicans in particular complained that the questions asked did not get it the concerns of Republican voters.

And again, the after forum criticism from the left of the moderation was that it was not tough on President Trump, that more follow up was necessary

by taking more of the responsibility that debates on themselves, parties can make them relevant to their primary voters.

One controversial change that we’re

publicans have made to their primary debates, is to require that all participants agree to support the ultimate Republican nominee in the fall 2024 general election. Candidates are often informally asked about this during debates. But this time the RNC is requiring that each candidate signed a pledge as a condition of participating in the debate.

Not everyone is happy with this requirement, but it is a step toward orienting primary debates in the right direction. The point of the debates and the campaign is for the party to select and get behind the nominee to win in the fall election. There can be many differences within a party. But support of the party’s presidential nominee is core to what it means to be a political party.

Most voters take for granted that we will have presidential debates.

This year there’s more uncertainty because we are asking appropriate questions about the role of the debates. We will have to make changes to ensure that the American people get to see the debates that they deserve.

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