The final weeks of the 2020 presidential election have been marked by controversy over when and how the two leading candidates will meet and debate. Smack in the middle of this controversy is the Commission on Presidential Debates, a little-known nonprofit that has managed the confrontations for decades.
The second and final fight between Republican President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is scheduled for Thursday night in Nashville. (What was supposed to be the second debate on Oct. 15 was canceled when Trump declined to participate in a virtual event after he was hospitalized with COVID-19.) The commission made headlines on Monday for its decision to mute the sound. of each candidate during the opening remarks of the other. after Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden during the first debate, a match many commentators considered one of the ugliest they had seen.
Here’s what you need to know about the commission and how it came about.
Should presidential candidates debate?
No. It’s not like it’s written in the Constitution, and it’s not even a power of presidents really need — they don’t govern by debating the Speaker of the House on TV, with a reporter as arbiter. Debates are a relatively new thing in the long history of American presidential campaigns, largely corresponding to the rise of television as a mass medium. And the best explanation for why they happen is that tens of millions of people watch them, and unlike ads, contestants don’t have to pay anything to get those eyeballs.
The first general election debates were on television between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960. You’ve probably heard the story of how terrible Nixon looked in the first telegenics debate. Kennedy because he refused to wear makeup for TV. You may not be aware that there were three other Nixon-Kennedy debates that year, including one in which both candidates appeared remotely.
But the main party candidates did not fight again until 1976 (Republican President Ford versus Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter), after which debates were held in each election cycle.
Has the Commission on Presidential Debates always held debates?
No. Beginning with the 1976 debates, that role was initially held by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, one of the nation’s oldest and best-known voter education groups. And the reason the league no longer holds presidential debates is because the Democratic and Republican parties decided the group was a bit too independent for their liking.
So President Carter refused to appear during a debate in 1980 because the league invited independent candidate John B. Anderson, whose candidacy was seen as a greater threat to Carter than to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan (who later defeated Carter).
In 1984, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., then chairman of the Republican National Committee, noted that joint Republican and Democratic sponsorship of presidential debates would be preferable, as “both major political parties should do everything in their power to strengthen their own position”.
In 1987, as the parties tried to take more control of the League of Women Voters debates, then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk compared the situation to “a little boy whose sister was doing his homework… It may not last forever.
This is how the Commission on Presidential Debates was born before the 1988 elections with the sponsorship of the two major parties.
How did the League of Women Voters react to the takeover of the two parties?
He wasn’t happy with the way things turned out. The League of Women Voters angrily withdrew its sponsorship of one of the 1988 presidential debates after the Democratic and Republican campaigns negotiated their own ground rules without league input in a way that appeared designed to minimize the risks or the spontaneity of the candidates.
“It has become clear to us that candidate organizations are aiming to add debates to their list of campaign charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” said league president Nancy Mr Neuman. in a report at the time. “The League has no intention of becoming complicit in defrauding the American public.”
This was the end of the league hosting presidential debates. The new Commission on Presidential Debates, sponsored by the major parties, would play that role for the next three decades and continues today.
How does the Commission on Presidential Debates work?
It is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and says it receives no funding from government or political groups.
The commission states on its website that “in the ensuing 30 years, no serving officer of either major party has had any affiliation with the CPD, and major parties have no ‘have no role in the management of the CPD or in the definition of its policies’. The commission chooses the moderators but says that the moderators choose their own questions and do not show the questions to the commission or the candidates.
In the past, the candidates of the two main parties would have negotiated in secret memorandums of understanding set the ground rules for debates, although the Washington Post recently reported that no such agreement exists in 2020.
Why aren’t third-party candidates appearing in more presidential debates?
The quick answer is that with the exception of Ross Perot in 1992, third party candidates almost never poll high enough to meet the Debate Commission‘s 15% voter qualification standard. So cycle after cycle, it’s a Democrat and a Republican on the debate stage. But they are of course not the only presidential candidates out there, and they are certainly not the only candidates winning the votes of Americans.
Over the decades, groups including the Green and Libertarian parties have filed multiple legal challenges against the Commission on Presidential Debates, deploying various legal arguments that basically say the same thing: the debate process is exclusive of third-party candidates, and therefore structurally biased in favor of the Democratic and Republican parties. A recent federal lawsuit supported by both the Libertarian and Green parties, called it a “bipartisan bias”.
But neither the courts nor the Federal Election Commission have been receptive to these challenges. In a US Court of Appeals decision in the District of Columbia in June, the court denied a request to force the Federal Election Commission to more rigorously review the Commission on Presidential Debates, writing, “There is no legal requirement that the [Federal Election] Commission facilitates the candidacy of independent candidates for the presidency of the United States.
The court argued that the partisan origins of the Commission on Presidential Debates have become less prominent over time as the organization has become an independent entity, albeit one dominated by familiar Republican and Democratic figures.
Who sits on the commission now?
The commission’s board of directors is led by three co-chairs: Fahrenkopf, Dorothy S. Ridings and Kenneth Wollack.
After leaving the RNC in 1989, Fahrenkopf was a lobbyist for the US casino industry between 1995 and 2013. Ridings is a former journalist and former president of the League of Women Voters. Wollack served as director of the National Democratic Institute between 1986 and 2018, and was previously legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and wrote on foreign affairs for the Los Angeles Times.
The board, which includes a mix of Republicans, Democrats and journalists, also includes the former Sens. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); former US Representative Jane Harman (D-Venice); former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson; John Griffen, CEO of investment bank Allen & Co.; Yvonne Hao, managing director of Cove Hill Partners, a private equity firm; Antonia Hernandez, president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, a philanthropy; Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame University, who recently contracted COVID-19 after visiting the White House without a mask; Newton N. Minow, attorney and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; and Richard D. Parsons, former CEO and Chairman of Time Warner.
The commission’s executive director is Janet H. Brown, who has held the position since the commission’s inception in 1987.