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Editorial: GOP’s move to pull out of presidential debates fits in with ongoing attack on truth

 A man in suit and tie standing at a lectern looks at another man in suit and tie gesturing as he speaks at a lectern
Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. This is what legitimate political discourse looks like.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
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It’s worth reflecting on this irony that emerged from the Republican National Committee’s meeting last week: At the same time the GOP absurdly deemed the Jan. 6 insurrectionists “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” it took a step toward shutting down actual legitimate political discourse by advancing a rule that could lead to the end of presidential debates.

The party claims it wants its candidates to continue participating in general election debates — just not those organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored this political tradition since 1988. It’s possible some new arrangement will be reached and debates will continue.

But based what happened in 2020 — when then-President Trump repeatedly trashed the legitimacy of the debate organization and eventually pulled out of one debate in favor of holding his own town hall at the same time as Joe Biden’s — it seems that the era of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees sharing a debate stage may be coming to an end.

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That would be a logical, though lamentable, next step in our polarized national politics — a landscape shaped by Trump’s relentless attacks on society’s arbiters of truth, including the press, the courts, scientists and election administrators.

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“The debate commission represented another institution that set out rules and had structure that the president simply did not wish to abide,” said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication and a dean at the University of Akron. “What I’m fearful of [if the GOP rule passes] is that we could see just some version of what we saw in those dueling town halls, where the candidates simply want to do their own thing.”

It’s easy to shrug and wonder why that would matter. Most voters have decided whom they’re going to vote for before a general election debate begins. But debates can influence a small slice of the electorate, McKinney’s research shows, which can be consequential in tight races.

That alone is reason enough to worry about the loss of this modern tradition, but debates serve another important function: mobilizing people to vote. The spectacle generates news coverage, conversations among voters and fodder that helps campaigns rally their supporters to the polls.

With candidates increasingly able to control political discourse through their own social media and friendly partisan media outlets, debates offer a rare opportunity for voters to see candidates answer questions they may not want to address in a venue they don’t control. They show us how candidates interact with their adversaries and how they perform under pressure.

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Under the GOP’s proposed rule, presidential candidates seeking the party’s nomination would have to pledge to not participate in debates organized by the commission. What, if anything, would replace them was not specified. It’s possible that news outlets could sponsor general election debates, as they do in the primaries. But the commission historically negotiates general election debate details with candidates directly — not the political parties — so the RNC is inserting itself in a way that smacks of Trump-like anti-establishmentarianism.

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“We are opening the field to a different way to do debates with a commission that is not biased,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Fox News last month. The party claims that moderators the commission selected were prejudiced against Trump — allegations that are false or exaggerated — and that members of its board of directors publicly disparaged him.

The Republican National Committee is expected to make a final vote on the potential rule change in the summer. The move follows months of wrangling with the debate commission over a list of changes the party wants. Some of the requests seem worth exploring: It wants assurance that debate moderators don’t have past ties to either candidate, and it wants at least one debate to be held before early voting begins. Others — such as setting term limits on the board of directors and allowing political party representatives to attend commission board meetings — are unnecessary, and seem designed to chip away at the commission’s power as an independent institution. The debate commission is amenable to holding a debate before early voting begins, but not the bulk of the requests.

Which leads us to point out another irony: The Commission on Presidential Debates was actually created to give political campaigns more control over the debates. From 1976 to 1984, presidential debates were organized by the League of Women Voters. But the independent organization became fed up with campaigns’ “stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands” to control every detail, from the selection of moderators to the composition of the audience and access for the press.

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Jan. 6, 2022

Two weeks before the 1988 debate scheduled between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, the League of Women Voters announced it was pulling out of the event “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Academic studies around that time recommended that the two major political parties come up with a way to ensure debates would continue as a reliable part of the electoral process. The chairs of the Republican and Democratic national committees supported that plan and the debate commission was born. Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the RNC chairman at the time, remains a co-chair of the debate commission today.

“It’s pretty rough out there right now in Washington between the parties,” Fahrenkopf said in an interview with an editorial writer. “But we’re talking about two years down the road. Hopefully, we will get back to some comity and we will have general election debates in 2024.”

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But today’s GOP doesn’t seem to care about comity. Trump steered Republicans into a thicket of lies, sowed distrust in democratic institutions and stoked feelings of victimhood among his supporters that culminated with the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He’s convinced more than 70% of Republicans that Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election, even though there’s no evidence to back that up.

As long as Trump holds sway over the GOP, it’s hard to imagine that the party’s position will lead to a legitimate debate — and our democracy will suffer for it.

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