It’s time to reform presidential debates – AMAC

AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman

Word “legal” is a technical term generally applied to the scientific investigation of crime or examination in medicine, but it can also be used in many other human endeavours, including the practice of public speaking and debate – where I first met as a member of my high school varsity debate team.

It comes to us from Latin, derived from forumand means “in public view”.

After high school, I had little interest in formal debate until I became interested in politics, where candidate debates are routine and presidential debates became a national institution after they began to be televised in 1960.

Beginning in 2012, the presidential debate environment became increasingly contentious, with Republicans claiming that the allegedly nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which had been tasked with organizing the debates, was not insisting not enough about moderators and neutral debate questions – a circumstance that became very clear during the 2020 debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

After RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s repeated calls for reforms were denied or delayed by the Commission, McDaniel threatened to demand that Republican presidential candidates boycott CPD-hosted debates in 2024 – which, if implemented, would nullify the CPD discussions.

The pandemic has complicated the Commission’s planning process in 2020, and the difficulty of having moderators and questioners to maintain neutrality in the current polarized political environment of yesterday and today has made, and makes again, the work of the CPD particularly difficult. But that doesn’t absolve them of the obligation to create a level playing field for the 2024 presidential candidates.

Political debate has a long and rich tradition in the United States, including the historic 1858 United States Senate debates in Illinois between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

There have been ups and downs in the various presidential debates since 1960, but few could match the iconic drama that pitted young Republican incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon against young Democratic U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, against each other in this first nationally broadcast debate on radio and television. Polls then indicated that those who had only heard this debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but those who had seen the debate on television thought the most telegenic Kennedy had won. Thus, the politics of the presidential debate has entered a new era of telecommunications.

A few years ago, I participated in an informative and notable non-presidential debate in 2007, when two potential presidential candidates, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, held a nationally broadcast debate at the Cooper Union in New York. City. Gingrich and Cuomo had vastly different opinions on nearly every issue, but that didn’t stop them from agreeing to a fair and civilized debate format. Harold Holzer, the eminent Lincoln scholar and former Cuomo press secretary, as well as widely respected TV newscaster Tim Russert, were part of the planning team that I was privileged to to also be a part. In the same venue where Lincoln gave his most important speech (it led to his nomination and election), two of the country’s leading public speakers spoke lucidly and eloquently about the political differences then unfolding in the country. Mr. Russert skillfully and with scrupulous fairness moderated the event.

(Mr. Cuomo, still leading national polls, never ran for president, but Mr. Gingrich did in 2012.)

The purpose of recalling this event is to illustrate that it can be done, even if it cannot be done by the current Presidential Debates Committee. McDaniel is right to insist on a fair debate environment, as the Democratic National Committee would be.

With more than two years until the next presidential election and the candidates unknown, now is the time to plan, negotiate and finalize the format and rules for the upcoming presidential debates so that the terms of the debate can be acceptable to both parties. If the current Presidential Debates Committee is unwilling or unable to do so, a new organizational structure should be created.

American voters want and deserve fair presidential debates.


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Andrew B. Reiter