The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The debate commission went too far. Its time is up.

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (Video: The Washington Post)

In February 1987, the Democratic and Republican parties announced the creation of a Commission on Presidential Debates, seizing control of the general election debates from the League of Women Voters. “The move provoked a sharp response from the League,” Phil Gailey reported in the New York Times, “which announced plans to hold its 1988 debates in the primary and general elections. ’I think they’re trying to steal the debates from the American voters,’ the league’s president, Nancy M. Neuman, said.”

But the two great parties did in fact take over the debates, because they could. They nominated the candidates for the nation’s highest office. Either they would agree to the ground rules, or there would be no ground rules and no debates.

Yet the original design of the party-controlled general-election debate has slowly morphed from Republican Party-Democratic Party negotiation into something wholly different: a free-standing group of self-anointed, self-important Beltway Brahmins. Slowly but surely, the organization added staff, raised funds, expanded its “mission” and deepened its own sense of entitlement.

What had been a legitimate arrangement whereby the two parties would, every four years, meet and confer, negotiate and deliberate, and decide on the number and design of debates became something wholly else: a bastion of Beltway privilege, with a little New York representation and media preening tossed in. The table servants became table setters. This week they made their big move. Without consulting President Trump or former vice president Joe Biden, the commission simply declared it was changing the rules for this year’s second general-election presidential debate: The “Townhall Debate” would be “virtual.”

I’ve inveighed against the commission before, because it is obviously biased to the left, so patently “of, in, by and for” the Beltway, as have been many of its moderators. This is indeed the case with most D.C.-based “institutions,” whether it’s PBS or the Smithsonian. Give any organization a “national mission” but base it inside the Beltway, and it will serve the Beltway.

Washington Post columnists weigh in on the vice-presidential debate between Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence on Oct.7, 2020. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/The Washington Post)

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Biden is most definitely the Beltway’s candidate, and the commission tried Thursday morning to gift him the high ground as it did with Chris Wallace in the first debate. I never suspected that it would grab for the controls in such a naked and frankly vulgar way. The commission’s original job was to arrange for the presidential candidates to meet and to agree on details of those meetings. They have gradually accreted power: to pick sites, format and moderators. This was the big grab, however, the play for lasting “independence” and “status.” So oblivious to their hubris, they announced their diktat without even a phone call to either candidate.

Outrage was fast to follow, but not as fast as Trump, who announced immediately that no way was he going to pretend either that a format he hadn’t agreed to was the format that would be used, or, more importantly by far, that a group of aging grandees of no authority in law or regulation, much less the Constitution, was going to tell the head of state and government when to show up for what event.

The commission was last seen falling back in disarray, and the campaigns were negotiating, again as was intended, between themselves. Maybe the dates would be moved? I suggest the president name a stage and a date, name his own moderator and invite Biden to join him along with a moderator of the Democratic nominee’s choosing. The moderators could alternate questions and leave the men who would be president to talk to each other for 10 minutes at a time. Who knows what would happen? A debate might break out.

But know that the commission is done. Finished. It went too far. It grabbed for too much. It exposed itself as not only far from it’s original, modest, representational purpose, as well as far from anything resembling nonpartisan, but also far from the people who run this country: its citizens, organized on the largest scale, into two parties that will now take back their authority — and quickly.

This election, like no other, has become one of “The Countryside v. The Capital.” Good. Thanks to the collective ego and ambition of the commission for clarifying this, again.

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