A Founding Member Says the Commission on Presidential Debates Needs to Change

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tags: presidential debates, Donald Trump, 2020 Election

Richard Moe was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and assistant to President Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981. He is the former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the founder of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington. He is the author, most recently, of Roosevelt’s Second Act – The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War





As a founding member of the Commission on Presidential Debates and its vice chairman for its early debate cycles, I watched Tuesday’s debate with both a sense of outrage and no small measure of personal chagrin: how could the bipartisan forum for presidential debates have allowed such an unabashed debacle to have occurred in the midst of what nearly everyone agreed is the most important election of our lifetimes?


The answer is obvious: no one foresaw that a major party candidate – let alone a sitting president -- could appear on stage for the primary purpose of making a mockery of the election, the debate itself and, most important, the presidency. The immediate question is what can be done about it, in this cycle and beyond? Before getting into that, let me explain a brief history of commission’s establishment and its purpose. 


In their early years, presidential debates had been sponsored primarily by the League of Women Voters. They brought both their nonpolitical reputation and the worthiest of goals in offering a forum that would reveal the views and personalities of the candidates, supposedly unscripted and unaware of the questions they would receive. There were several problems, however, that occurred to both Democrats and Republicans. As helpful as the League’s sponsorship had been, it became clear over time they couldn’t assure that the candidates would appear regularly in a way that would make the debates permanent. Also, the League had become locked into a stiff, stale format that called for a panel of journalists who tended to offer stock questions, usually with little or no opportunity for follow-up and interaction between the candidates. 


In the mid-1980s, Robert Strauss, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Mel Laird, the much-admired former GOP congressman from Wisconsin and a former secretary of defense, put their heads together and formed a conference of political thinkers and practitioners to meet in Washington to discuss a range of national issues to see if it was possible to reach a bipartisan consensus to resolve them. High on the list for several of us was presidential debates, and it soon emerged that participants of both parties shared the same frustrations with the League’s sponsorship, particularly the lack of certainty every four years and the absence of varying formats. It would come as no surprise that a group of party activists concluded that the two political parties could do a better job, on the grounds that they were in a better position to assure that the party’s nominees would show up and that the commission would have the flexibility to experiment with different formats designed to engage and maintain citizen interest. 


The notion was approved overwhelmingly by the group, and it adjourned happy with itself and what it had done, while understanding that in all likelihood this was just another Washington report that would live, and inevitably die, on numerous Washington shelves. As one of the more outspoken advocates of the idea, I thought that would be a classic missed opportunity. Strauss and Laird were persuaded to take the finding of their commission one step further, and to make it a reality. 


Before long, Paul Kirk, the Democratic national chairman, and his GOP counterpart Frank Fahrenkopf, eagerly agreed to head up the new commission and assembled others from both parties who would commit to institutionalizing the presidential debates and to providing varied formats such as town hall-type meetings, and strict fairness in everything the Commission did. Over time various issues got worked out and the commission gained important experience and credibility. Happily, Kirk and Fahrenkopf developed an easy relationship that allowed them to steer a steady course that, thanks to their successors, has proved largely effective for more than three decades. . . until Tuesday evening. 


In my view, the commission needs to establish at once its credibility in providing a fair setting for the two candidates by taking at least two essential steps before proceeding with further debates this month:  it should empower the moderator to cut off the mic of a  participant who refuses to obey the agreed-upon rules and time limits in order to prevent a recurrence of the utter chaos and disaster that the president visited on some 100 million TV viewers. It should also bring back the idea of brief opening and closing statements, so that each candidate is assured of at least two uninterrupted minutes at the beginning and end of the debate, to lay out his best case for why he should be elected. There may be other steps that should be considered as well, and the commission should go to great lengths to establish its independence as part of its mission to provide fairness, which needn’t conflict with the fact of party sponsorship. If one candidate objects to these modest but justifiable changes to the rules, the commission should insist on them anyway to protect its own integrity and the long-term future of presidential debates. The onus for ensuring future debates this year should not fall on the candidate who agrees to new rules that are patently fair and self-evidently needed given the atrocious events of Tuesday in Cleveland. 


On the matter of future debates, I hope the commission will take the time after the election to review these and other issues in the commission’s history that might warrant reexamination. One item to consider is whether there should non-political public members added to the body, on the grounds that the debates are so important to the public interest that there should be voices representing the American electorate at large. 

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