An Odd Refusal on Debates
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 21, 2022
To my ear, to hear the Republican National Committee say it doesn’t want its presidential candidates to debate seemed like telling a kid you don’t want him or her to eat the broccoli.
Republican leadership has told the Commission on Presidential Debates that it plans to require GOP presidential nominees not to attend debates run by the commission — as if this is a good thing.
As with sudden juvenile freedom from green vegetables, it comes as a relief not to think of sitting through televised hours of a hulking Donald Trump circling a feisty Hillary Clinton, or of arriving while Covid positive to shirk Joe Biden’s challenge to call out the Proud Boys for white supremacy. The answers are never as good as the questions, and too often, we find the exchanges overly curt and made for sound bite. The time clock measuring outlines of national programs in under a minute seems ludicrous.
But we know in our hearts that this refusal to debate is yet another blow to public understanding. Despite the systemic flaws, we have a responsibility to hear out what our candidates want to get done, and to use independent questioning by journalists to judge responses.
Naturally, many candidates do less than wonderfully in such circumstances, and we all can read between the lines here that GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is taking early precautions to protect Trump from any perception that he offers little governing guidance other than bluster and slogans and the ever-sore election fraud motif.
Trump is good on improvisation, just too often short on the facts. And since he is insistent about being returned to office however that can be arranged, the RNC move to eliminate a hurdle makes some kind of internal sense — just not one for an informed voter.
In that sense, we should record this one as yet another tick by Team Trump against inviting people to choose him because of what he stands for rather than for who he is.
Clearly, The Donald has not been one for rules or protocol. His four years in the White House and since have been a steady, persistent attack on what we expect from government. He lauds himself for cutting regulation, eliminating oversight or upholding a variety of protocols and traditions, preferring to let companies and the wealthy to do what they want without supervision.
The court papers filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James this week accusing The Trump Organization of repeatedly misrepresenting the value of assets in “fraudulent or misleading” practices, is a reminder that Trump has always seen rules as applying only to others.
His drumbeat of massive election fraud claims without evidence, his attempts to manipulate the legal and election systems in place, and his role — whether spiritual or direct — in the attempts to overthrow the actually elected government all show that he sees himself as immune from law meant for mere mortals. It is the central claim in his this week’s appeal to the courts to exempt him from turning over White House documents that he sees himself beyond the reach of law. The Supreme Court mostly blocked Trump’s attempt to halt the release of those documents.
One sees similar fleeing from responsibility in not paying cities for security for his rallies, in ordering the Secret Service to stay at his properties at inflated prices, in commuting the prison sentences for loyal friends and many, many other acts while president or a candidate.
Walking away from responsibility is a feature for Trump, not a bug, as a techie might say.
In any event, the least important question in these debates — often settled in the post-debate “spin room” — is who won? No one wins, it is a chance to hear who actually seems to have a plan and the character to carry it through. Sometimes it is a contest between two candidates to determine who makes us cringe less often.
The pattern here suggests why Trump may want to avoid debates, since they are set up to challenge the candidates, not extol them or simply give them free air time.
For that matter, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris might embrace the chance not to face hard questions themselves. Despite his command of actual governing, Biden too often has stumbled in his answers, either from innate speech defect or a jumble of ideas trying to get out at once. And Harris, always a quick debater, has had trouble translating her fervor into measurable action on the job, leaving her vulnerable to challenging questions.
The questioners themselves have found themselves vexed by candidates who refuse to follow the debate time or subject rules. And they have found their questions picked apart constantly for partisan bias, under the mistaken belief in each party that the journalist present is somehow supposed to be supportive in some manner.
The RNC’s McDaniel wrote commissioners that Republican voters have “lost faith in your organization.” She also expressed frustration with the commission’s unwillingness to adopt several “commonsense” changes that the RNC has advocated.
That includes the timing of debates now that many states have adopted rules for earlier voting that may coincide with some debates.
But Trump complained loudly about the commission, at one point tweeting that it was “stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers,” a list in which he includes pretty much everyone but selected, Trump-supporting television commentators on Fox News and Newsmax. McDaniel noted that one 2020 C-Span host whose debate was cancelled had once worked for Biden for one month in 1978.
The tradition of a Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 and has hosted general-election debates every cycle since 1988. In the new political world for Republicans at least, the past is just problematic — unless it helps your candidate.
Satirist Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker highlighted all this with a fictional Trump calling for Biden to skip the 2024 election altogether, since Trump already knows he won.
Maybe we could teach Critical Debate Theory in the schools.