Let the Presidential Debates Die

McDaniel’s efforts to extract concessions from the CPD—or to scrap it altogether in favor of an organization more willing to accept Jesse Watters as a presidential debate moderator—may very well just be yet another instance of Republicans working the refs. The goal, as always, is to get more favorable coverage for the GOP and foist less favorable coverage on Democrats; the goal is never to get factual or truthful coverage of either. In this instance, it’s fairly clear that the RNC doesn’t want moderators fact-checking candidates in real time—one of the very things journalism is designed to do. They have also complained about moderators, particularly those with past ties to Democratic politicians. (In 2020, Steve Scully, then at CSPAN, backed out of hosting one debate after he was caught asking former Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci’s advice on how to deal with the former president and then lying about it.)

“The RNC has a duty to ensure that its future presidential nominees have the opportunity to debate their opponents on a level playing field,” the letter signed by McDaniel reads. If changes aren’t made, “the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere.”

The CPD and Democrats shouldn’t take the bait. The presidential debate system as it is now—with all of its many flaws—is vastly superior than whatever monstrosity McDaniel and other Republicans want to birth into this world. There’s simply no reason to bow to their demands. Let them complain and give them nothing; it’s likely that within the next two years, they’ll simply accept that the current system, which favors them, is preferable to nothing at all. But if they threaten to take their ball and go home, it’s best to call their bluff.

There are plenty of substantive complaints to be had about the debates. Many argue that we should look to the past, removing the pageantry from the debates and adding more sobriety, as was the case—at least comparably—in many of the handful of debates that took places before the CPD took over. Removing audiences and involving moderators actually interested in engaging with the policies being pushed by the candidates would almost certainly make for more engaging and substantive debates. If the debates themselves are a failure right now, that’s only because they reflect America’s broken political culture. Changing the debates themselves won’t immediately bring about better politics, as some of their critics suggest. It’s better just to not have them at all.

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