Maine and Nebraska Going Tit-For-Tat Over Trump?

So Joe Biden has publicly agreed to two debates with Donald Trump, one in June and another in September. Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it, but I suppose we should take him at his word for now. However, assuming they happen, these will be different than the presidential debates we’ve witnessed in the past. The candidates have bypassed the Commission on Presidential Debates and opted to allow CNN and ABC News to host the events without an audience being present. So is this an aberration or will it become a trend going forward? The Associated Press suggests that the CPD “has an uncertain future” at this point. They are still scheduling presidential and vice presidential debates, but it sounds as if nobody is going to show up for them. 

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has planned presidential faceoffs in every election since 1988, has an uncertain future after President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump struck an agreement to meet on their own.

The Biden and Trump campaigns announced a deal Wednesday to meet for debates in June on CNN and September on ABC. Just a day earlier, Frank Fahrenkopf, chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, had sounded optimistic that the candidates would eventually come around to accepting the commission’s debates.

“There’s no way you can force anyone to debate,” Fahrenkopf said in a virtual meeting of supporters of No Labels, which has continued as an advocacy group after it abandoned plans for a third-party presidential ticket.

How you feel about the fate of the Commission on Presidential Debates likely depends on how you feel about the format they use and how good of a job they’ve done in the past. Traditionally, they have selected the locations, recruited moderators, and assembled a live audience to view the proceedings. The locations generally aren’t problematic, but their choice of moderators has been questionable at times. The value of having a live audience is in the eye of the beholder, but I personally liked hearing the audience’s reactions in previous cycles.

There won’t be a live audience for these debates, a fact that probably plays in Joe Biden’s favor. He has people from his own party who could very well show up, start booing, and call him Genocide Joe. Then there are the moderators. For the first debate on CNN, they will be Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. To his credit, Tapper has moderated such debates before and done a pretty good job without appearing too one-sided. Dana Bash… not so much. In fact, most of the setup for the CNN debate appears as if it might lend at least some small advantage to Biden. But Trump was the one out there making demands and saying “any place, any time,” so he probably can’t afford to start demanding changes at this point.

That brings us to the question of whether or not these debates are even worth having any more. We’ve been having debates for so long at this point that they seem like a required part of the process, but of course, they are not. As the chairman of the CPD himself admitted, you can’t force anyone to debate. With that said, I still believe they usually have value. Candidates are expected to articulate their policies and describe what they plan to do if they are elected. There is also value in seeing how they react when challenged on something by their opponent. Of course, there is probably less value to them this year since we’ve already seen both of the major candidates perform when they held office and neither seems to be shifting their stance on much. The greatest value we might expect could come from the opportunity to see if Joe Biden will be able to hold himself together and answer spontaneous questions on the fly without cue cards. If his team can get him “jacked up” enough like they did for the State of the Union, he might pull it off, but his recent performances have not been promising, to say the least.

If allowing the candidates to participate in debates hosted by cable news networks works out well enough, perhaps this will wind up being the end of the road for the Commission on Presidential Debates. Only the final candidates in 2028 will be able to say for sure. But the one thing the CPD has going for them is that if one candidate agrees to show up, the other will almost certainly feel obligated to do the same to avoid giving their opponent an unfettered national platform.

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