On Jan. 13, the Republican National Committee threatened to bar the party’s candidates from taking part in debates planned by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which has formally organized the quadrennial encounters since 1987. In a letter, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel questioned the commission’s “credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor.”
The letter covers several “reforms” that, according to McDaniel, the CPD has failed to address, including “transparent criteria” in the selection of moderators and the establishment of a “code of conduct” for journalists entrusted with guiding the discussion. It concludes with an ultimatum: The RNC intends to amend its rules to “prohibit” candidates from “participating in CPD-sponsored debates.”
This is troubling for the country’s democracy, but also for the example it sets abroad.
The CPD is an independent staple of U.S. democratic institutions. Republican Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democrat Kenneth Wollack, to whom McDaniel addressed her letter, currently co-chair the commission. The rest of its leadership is equally bipartisan. Over the years, the CPD has selected authoritative journalists as moderators. They have conducted the debates with poise and integrity. Jim Lehrer, who moderated 12, was a fairness purist with just one goal in mind: to help the electorate understand a candidate’s positions and stay out of the way. Nothing more, nothing less.
That was Lehrer’s advice to colleagues. At least it was to me when I had the opportunity to hear from him in 2018. He advised toughness, fairness and restraint. Our conversation was part of a workshop in the run-up to the second presidential debate in Mexico’s last election, in partnership between the CPD and Mexico’s electoral authority, the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE).
While far from perfect, the three debates set a precedent for Mexican democracy, including the first ever townhall format, held in Tijuana. The CPD’s guidance was central to their success. “They invited us to the third presidential debate in 2016 to witness the process and helped us organize the training sessions,” Rubén Álvarez, the INE’s communication director, told me. “Martin Slutsky, executive producer of the U.S. debates, worked closely with us.”
The INE now takes part in similar workshops worldwide, organized, among others, by the CPD, sharing its experience with debates in the democratic process.
The CPD’s guidance has strengthened other democracies as well. Chile is an interesting example. In a recent conversation, Marcelo Hilsenrad, who produces that country’s presidential debates, told me the CPD’s input has been “invaluable.”
“The CPD is the perfect example of an impartial, bipartisan institution,” Hilsenrad told me. “The debates it organizes are not only technically impeccable, but fair and transparent.”
As it did in Mexico, the CPD has positively influenced Chilean journalists. “Debates have been very important in the construction of democratic routines in Chile,” Daniel Matamala, a frequent and tough debate moderator whom I also met during the CPD-sponsored workshop in Mexico, told me. In last year’s election, candidates Gabriel Boric and José Antonio Kast faced off in a couple debates. The second one, with Matamala as one of the moderators, proved particularly revealing. After Boric won a few weeks later, Kast conceded his defeat and moved on.
The RNC’s recent decision alarmed Hilsenrad and Matamala. “It is difficult for me to understand that in a democracy as powerful and attached to its values as the United States, any protagonist would want to withdraw from its presidential debates, which have been a reference not only for the world but for American democracy itself,” Hilsenrad told me. Matamala went further. “Many Latin American countries follow America’s lead,” he told me. “It’s a very worrying development for U.S. democracy”.
They are right.
The CPD, and presidential debates in the United States, are not flawless. But boycotting the institution and the exercises in democratic deliberation it so carefully organizes is not the way forward. With democracy at a crossroads, the RNC should reconsider its decision. In this, as in so much more, the world is watching. A more restrictive debate culture is never the answer.