Presidential Debates and the Age of Fracture

POLITICS & POLICY
Then-president Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) yesterday that the GOP will move to prohibit candidates from participating in CPD events. Republicans and conservatives have a long list of complaints about the CPD, and the RNC negotiated with the group last year to address the party’s concerns. Those talks are over­ — for now, anyway. The future of presidential debates is up in the air.

Many on the right cheered McDaniel’s letter. Others saw it as another bid in an ongoing negotiation. Still others interpret the GOP threat as empty: After all, would the party really disavow a 2024 nominee who agreed, after the convention, to a CPD debate?

I kept thinking of how rare presidential debates have been, and of how unusual an institution the CPD is. The United States has held 59 presidential elections. Only 13 of them have featured presidential debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees. The first was in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and for 16 years their exchange was the only presidential debate.

Nixon was not about to repeat his experience. And LBJ wasn’t a television guy. The next debate wasn’t held until 1976, when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford stood in awkward silence as the sound malfunctioned for 27 minutes. Debates have been held every four years since. The Carter and Ford campaigns arranged the debate themselves, as did the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and his opponents in 1980 and 1984. The CPD began in 1987 and has managed the subsequent nine debate cycles. Its time might be up.

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Which stands to reason. The commission is an odd fit for our unbundled, polarized, agenda-driven times. It harkens back to the so-called Great Convergence during the mid-20th century, when American politics, media, economy, and society were consolidated in massive, consensus-forming institutions. Ours, however, is an age of fracture and dispersion, of divergence and dissipation. As Yuval Levin put it in 2016, “We have grown less conformist but more fragmented, more diverse but less unified, more dynamic but less secure.”

Nowadays the idea that a group of Washington fixers will work with mainstream-media outlets to set the rules for debates strikes one as anachronistic. No one trusts Washington fixers. No one has confidence in mainstream media. No one seems particularly interested in debate — hectoring one’s opponents and confirming one’s biases is much more fun. If the CPD does expire, it will be because its historical epoch has come to an end. The time has arrived for new institutions better suited to contemporary realities.

Presidential debates will continue, however. For candidates, the exposure is hard to turn down. And debates help Republicans — if the GOP has the right candidate who performs ably. How to find such a candidate? That’s the real problem.

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