Now that Donald Trump has been designated the “presumptuous” nominee of the Republican Party, it is a good time to look ahead to the debates that have been scheduled by the bipartisan Commission On Presidential Debates (CPD). If the recent history of candidate debates within the Republican Party is any guide, Trump’s contribution to the general election match ups could wind up turning the events into feral spectacles of crass immaturity and an avoidance of substance – i.e. pro-wrestling on meth.
The CPD has been responsible for managing these debates since 1988. It was formed “to ensure that the voting public has the opportunity to see the leading candidates debate during the general election campaign” in an environment that “is not controlled by any political party or outside organization.” While it has not always been a perfect solution, it has provided some measure of independence to prevent the candidates from dominating the process for their own benefit. This year, more than most, there is a significant threat to the independence of the debates as a fair and open discourse that informs voters. That threat is Donald Trump.
Throughout the GOP primary, Trump has forced himself and his rapacious self-interest on the candidates and the media participating in the party debates. Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, has made a determined effort to turn the debates into PR vehicles for the party by proclaiming that “allowing moderators who are not serving the best interests of the candidate and the party” is “ridiculous.” But that explicit endorsement of bias wasn’t enough for Trump who continued to strive to dominate the process and often got his way. He even refused to negotiate in concert with his party peers, preferring to conduct his own negotiations with the debate organizers and sponsors. Subsequently, Trump’s tantrums succeeded in forcing the RNC and the media to capitulate to his will on several occasions. For instance:
- Following a contentious debate on CNBC, Trump’s complaints led the RNC to cancel any debates scheduled to be hosted by NBC, which is actually a different network with different management and moderators.
- With regard to the CNBC debate, Trump’s whining successfully resulted in the debate hosts cutting the planned event from three hours to two in order to accommodate Trump’s lack of stamina and fear of having to answer questions.
- After the conservative magazine National Review published a special issue that was critical of Trump, the RNC succumbed to his hissy fit by prohibiting the magazine from co-sponsoring a debate with CNN as scheduled.
- Before the New Hampshire primary Trump exercised his virtual veto power over the New Hampshire Union Leader, the largest newspaper in the state, who was dropped as co-host of an ABC debate after they published an unflattering editorial about Trump.
- Trump attempted to force the RNC to cancel a debate hosted by the Spanish-language network, Univision. Which was a bold move considering that Univision was never scheduled to host a debate. He took the same position with Telemundo without success.
- The long-festering feud between Trump and Fox’s Megyn Kelly led to Trump threatening to boycott a Fox News debate unless Kelly was removed as a moderator. Trump followed through by skipping the debate in order to hold a phony telethon for veterans who still haven’t received the money he allegedly raised.
These examples of how the RNC and the media have let Trump dictate the terms of the debates during the primary raise concerns about how the CPD will respond if he tries to command the same tyrannical influence during the general election. Unlike the RNC, the CPD is theoretically not beholden to the candidates of any party, but Trump has demonstrated that he can throw a tantrum that rivals a snotty eight year old video gamer who desperately wants the latest edition of Assassin’s Creed.
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It remains to be seen how the CPD will hold up under the pressure from Trump which, if the past is any indicator, will be as fierce as it is unethical. If they acquiesce to his demands it will demolish both their reputation and the credibility of the debates themselves. These are not meant to be infomercials for the candidates. Their purpose is to provide a candid discourse for voters so that they can make informed decisions. And while we can expect Trump to behave like a petulant child spewing insults and bitching about anything that isn’t flagrantly favorable to him, we have to hope the CPD stays above all of that and conducts fair and probing debates that serve the public interest. Stay tuned.