May 18, 2024

Is The Debate Commission Dead?

Way back in 1987, the two major political parties in the United States agreed on something. I know, it’s hard to imagine—but it really did happen. Both Republicans and Democrats jointly formed the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)—to sponsor and produce the presidential and vice-presidential debate process. Between 1988 and 2020, the Commission carried out every general election debate, starting with George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis. 

While the agreement brought a semblance of stability and tradition to what had been a messy process, it also effectively froze out third-party candidates. In fact, the last third-party candidate to participate in a CPD debate was H. Ross Perot in 1992—after meeting the polling threshold for entry.

Now, in 2024, the soon-to-be nominees of the two major parties—President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump—have jointly decided to go around the CPD process and hold two independent debates (one in June and one in September). The President has set down a list of demands that Trump has accepted (airing on the CNN & ABC networks, no audiences, ability to cut-off microphones of interrupting candidates). And, most importantly to both campaigns, no Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to share the stage.

Recent polls have shown Kennedy pulling about evenly between the two main party candidates—so it’s in the interest of both Biden and Trump to keep Kennedy on the sidelines as much as possible. But the price of this Faustian Bargain is the diminishment—and likely demise—of a nearly forty-year tradition that set the debate process on a bi-partisan pedestal that voters could trust. It will be a shame if short-term political considerations kill a useful American institution.