With Debate Deal, Trump and Biden Sideline a Storied Campaign Institution

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The agreement by President Biden and Donald J. Trump to move ahead with two presidential debates — and sideline the Commission on Presidential Debates — is a debilitating and potentially fatal blow to an institution that had once been a major arbiter in presidential politics.

But the roots of the commission’s decline go back at least a decade and came to a head in 2020, when the commission struggled to stage a debate with Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden during the pandemic.

The candidates’ first encounter that year was caustic and raucous, as Mr. Trump shouted over Mr. Biden and the moderator. “I’m a pro: I’ve never been through anything like this,” the moderator, Chris Wallace, said.

As it later turned out, Mr. Trump had a Covid diagnosis days before the event, leading to strong objections from the Biden campaign to the commission. The second debate was canceled by Mr. Trump after the commission sought to make it virtual because Mr. Trump was recovering from the illness. By the third debate, the commission gave the moderator a mute button to cut off a candidate who broke the rules.

But even before then, the commission has been on political thin ice. Anita Dunn, a longtime senior adviser to Mr. Biden, helped write a 2015 report that called for the debates to be updated for a modern media environment. Mr. Trump accused the nonpartisan commission, created by the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in 1987, of bias toward the Democrats. The Republican National Committee announced in 2022 that it would not work with the commission.

“The campaigns have always wanted to take the debates back for themselves,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor emeritus at the Northeastern University School of Journalism in Boston, who has written several books about presidential debates. “They have been trying for years to get rid of the commission. So we are back to the future with this and back to a future that didn’t work that well.”

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who as Republican Party chairman helped create the commission and is now its co-chair, said in an interview that he was stunned by the campaigns’ decision to bypass the organization — and skeptical about how it might work.

“I would love to be a fly on the wall when the campaigns start to get together to go over the details of this,” he said. “Who sits where, who is the moderator, who is there, where these are. We were created to do all of this.”

Indeed, the commission was created to insert a bipartisan and empowered negotiator into the planning, covering matters such as moderator choices, how many guests each campaign could bring into the studio and the height of the lecterns the candidates stood behind.

It took over from the League of Women Voters, which had overseen the debates for a decade and was criticized for its lack of success in managing the demands of campaign operatives maneuvering for advantage. In 1984, the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, the Republican president, and Walter F. Mondale, his Democratic challenger, vetoed the names of 100 journalists suggested as panel questioners.

“The problem was that the league didn’t have a lot of clout against the campaign so the campaigns tended to run roughshod over them when it came to details of the format, the schedule, whether there would be a live audience,” Mr. Schroeder said.

The commission pushed aside practices that had evolved since the first televised presidential debates, in 1960, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Panels of questioners, which made it more difficult to stay focused on a topic, or allow for follow-up, were replaced by a single moderator. The commission decided who could participate and where the debates would be held, and made sure that they would be televised on all the major networks.

Locations, dates and the focus of the debate — would they be about foreign policy or domestic issues — were announced well in advance, with the idea of making it harder for the campaign to try to influence the rules of the game.

“I am a fan of the commission,” said Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston. “They have a consistent record of good work. It’s unfortunate if it’s going to be returned back to the campaigns; there will be more strategic calculations going on and less overall what’s in the best interest in the American public.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were quick to agree on the dates and networks sponsoring the debates, but tough negotiations lie ahead. Mr. Biden wants debates without an audience and with microphones that automatically cut off when a speaker exceeds his allotted time. It’s unclear whether Mr. Trump has agreed to those terms.

It is also unresolved whether the debate would be carried exclusively on the host network, or shared with other broadcasters and streamers. One of the sponsors, ABC, said it would allow other networks to show the debates as well; CNN, at least initially, said it would not.

For viewers, there might be no obvious difference between a commission-organized debate and one negotiated by the candidates and a network.

“A debate is a live program. It doesn’t haven’t a script. Because as history has shown us over and over again, the debates have a mind of their own and take on a life of their own,” Mr. Schroeder said.

Despite the years of discontent, Mr. Fahrenkopf said the commission was caught off guard by Mr. Biden’s proposal on Wednesday. “We had no head’s up,” he said. But he said he was hopeful the campaigns, after taking into account how difficult these negotiations can be, will ultimately allow the commission to step in and run the show.

“We are set to go,” he said.

Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.



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