WASHINGTON DC – On 14 April, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to withdraw its participation from the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates is, as its name suggests, the entity that governs presidential debates in the general election.
The RNC insisted that it does not mean it has completely pulled future nominees from debates. Still, with the RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel insisting that the commission is “biased and has refused to enact simple and common-sense reforms”, and generally echoing the former president Donald Trump’s criticisms of the fairness of the commission, it is perhaps safe to assume that, at the very least, Republican participation in future presidential debates will not be a given.
In practical terms, this is perhaps no great loss. The presidential debates from the 2020 election featured Trump yelling over everyone for the entirety of the opener. In a later debate, Trump spewed internet conspiracy theories about his political opponent, Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter. In the 2016 iterations, Trump stalked his opponent Hillary Clinton around the stage; he also invited women who had accused her husband, Bill Clinton, of sexual harassment at various points to the debates as his guests. In other words, they have already turned into a substance-less circus. I do not know if there are still people who tune into the debates to hear how their candidates’ policies hold up under questioning, rather than root for their party’s pick, but if there are they have surely been disappointed in recent years. Not having a presidential debate in 2024 doesn’t seem like such a great loss.
And yet, it is. There should be a forum for candidates to have their ideas scrutinised and held to account, and to answer both to their political rivals and opponents and the American public. It would be nice if both of the US’s major political parties recognised that and did what they could to make their candidates answerable to the people in this way, rather than, as the RNC is, making mendacious excuses and pulling further and further away from transparency and accountability.
In other words, it’s not that the RNC pulling out of the Commission on Presidential Debates is a great loss. Rather, the RNC decision underscores what we Americans have already lost, and how difficult it will be to ever get that back.