Republicans quit the Presidential Debate Committee. Why this could be a good thing.

On April 14, the Republican National Committee announced its withdrawal from the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has monopolized major party debates since 1988. The RNC, citing the CPD’s bias in selecting moderators, pledged to ” find new and better platforms for debate. ”

While the RNC’s reasons are self-serving, this is perhaps the most encouraging development in presidential electoral politics in decades. The American public hasn’t seen anything like a true multiparty presidential debate since 1996.

Why? Ross Perot. After the late Texan’s two well-funded independent (1992) and third-party (1996) presidential elections, the CPD established a requirement excluding any candidate who did not show at least 15 percent in five CPD-selected polls.

Did I mention that the CPD was created by the Republican and Democratic parties and is run by a bipartisan board, i.e. Democrat and Republican?

The CPD does not sponsor debates intended to inform the American public. Instead, it features a quadrennial series of pricey infomercials for two, and only two, presidential candidates: the two the bipartisan organization backs.

Libertarian, Green, and other third-party and independent applicants do not need to apply. Not even the candidates who overcame onerous ballot access hurdles (also created by the Big Two) and could eventually rack up 270 electoral votes to win the election.

It’s a safe bet that if a third party or an independent candidate reaches the 15% mark in several polls, these will not be the polls that the CPD will use.

And it’s an even safer bet that if a third party or independent candidate reaches 15% in too many polls to ignore, the CPD will raise the threshold to 20%.

Additionally, the main party candidates quietly negotiate memorandums of understanding with each other to ensure that the public does not see third parties or independent candidates on stage next to the Big Two outside of CPD events. The 2004 memorandum, for example, committed Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry to “not appear at any other debates or adversarial forums with any other presidential or vice-presidential candidate.”

None of this shenanigans explains the RNC’s withdrawal from the CPD, of course. Republicans, like Democrats, agree to subject candidates who might cost their own votes to effective media bans. The RNC’s decision is just a tantrum at perceived unfairness to Republican candidates in the form of more controversial questions than “boxers or briefs?” during infomercials…er…”debates”.

But this crisis creates an opportunity for the press, working with political organizations other than the CPD, to open the American electoral process to real competition.

Will our media and civic institutions rise to the challenge of breaking the CPD’s monopoly and holding genuine presidential debates with all viable candidates? If so, they deserve our thanks.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.

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