RNC wants some presidential debate changes, and its complaints are not entirely without merit

By Gary Abernathy

Future debates should focus on answers, not questions

Among several things that contributed to Donald Trump losing his reelection bid – and yes, he did lose it, fair and square – was his disastrous debate performance in his first face-to-face matchup with Joe Biden on Sept. 29, 2020.

As you’ll recall, Trump acted like a human bumper car that evening. Even by Trump standards, his constant interruptions and insults became annoying even to many of Trump’s own supporters. Biden was not exactly the model of decorum himself, telling Trump to “shut up, man.” (Does Biden think he’s cool by adding “man” to his comments?)

But everyone in America knew that the Trump campaign’s strategy was – or should have been – to let Biden talk. Biden’s basement strategy had led to speculation – never completely dispelled even now – that he wasn’t quite prime-time material when it came to answering questions without losing his train of thought or meandering into an incomprehensible word salad, as had happened at various points when he did emerge.

But Trump rescued Biden from himself, delivering a performance so bizarrely intrusive and obnoxious that even his typical backers had to struggle to put a happy face on it. Trump undoubtedly lost a lot of fence sitters that night, and his decision to completely blow off the second debate because it was being changed to a “virtual” one due to covid concerns probably cost him the election.

Along those lines, the Washington Post reports today, “The Republican National Committee is threatening to advise its future presidential candidates not to participate in debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates if the nonpartisan organization does not address a litany of complaints detailed in a letter Tuesday.”

CNN elaborates as follows:

The letter from McDaniel walks through Republicans' numerous complaints about the commission, including its decision on when to hold the debates, some of the political leanings of its board members and the selection of C-SPAN's Steve Scully to moderate what would have been the second contest. The Trump campaign attacked Scully for working for Biden roughly four decades earlier, leading the journalist to accidentally publicly reach out on Twitter to Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's short-lived White House communications director. When the outreach frustrated Republicans, Scully said he had been hacked, something he later admitted was not true. C-SPAN then placed Scully on "administrative leave" for lying. "It should be obvious, for instance, that no person should serve as a moderator who previously worked for one of the candidates," McDaniel writes.

Partisanship aside, the RNC has some valid points. The presidential debates – including ones held during primaries – have too often become as much about the journalists asking the questions as about the candidates themselves. Post-debate analysis focuses as much on the performance of the questioners as on the people on stage. That’s wrong. It’s also a product of an age where many in the media suggest that it’s the job of moderators and panelists to hold candidates accountable – in essence, to “fact check” in real time during the debate.

Wrong. Asking for clarification or politely questioning the accuracy of a response is one thing, but belaboring it to the point that the journalist starts debating, too, is a sign of the event getting off track. There’s nothing new about lies being told by candidates during a debate. They can be called out later. It’s not a phenomenon that started with Trump, despite what many in the media like to pretend. It’s the responsibility of the other candidate or candidates to question the validity of what another debater says in real time, not someone who’s job is to ask some boring questions in a low-key fashion. In fact, if it’s done right, moderating a presidential debate should be a job no one volunteers for, because it’s so perfunctory and unglamorous.

I wrote a piece for the Post a couple of years ago after re-watching the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debate from 1980, and came away with some striking impressions:

The members of the media panel didn’t interrupt the candidates or inject themselves into the debate. The candidates didn’t talk over each other, and neither accused his opponent of being a racist, a Russian agent, an anti-Semite, a baby-killer, a communist or a liar… The journalists didn’t dispute the answers or try to create memorable moments for themselves, instead respecting the public’s ability to decipher obfuscations. ABC News’s Barbara Walters came closest to inserting herself into the fray when she observed, “I would like to say that neither candidate answered specifically the question of a specific policy for dealing with terrorism.” But rather than badgering the candidates until she was satisfied, she understood that the event was not about her and moved on.

The rules we need for future debates should be focused less on what the candidates can or cannot do, and more on limiting the ability of journalists to inject themselves into the event. The best debates are the ones where the answers are being discussed the next day, and no one can remember who was asking the questions.

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