Apr 19, 2022

The RNC's debate decision.

The RNC's debate decision.

Republicans are bucking the presidential debates and asking for changes.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the RNC's withdrawal from the Commission on Presidential Debates. Plus, we're catching you up from our few days off and skipping our reader question to give that recap some extra space.

Photo: Flickr / Elvert Barnes

Thank you.

Before taking a few days off last week, we celebrated the one year anniversary since I quit my full-time job. I'm still sorting through reader feedback from as long as two weeks ago, so I apologize for not being able to respond to everyone in a timely fashion, but just wanted to say thank you again for all the well wishes, kind words, and thoughtful advice about how to continue to improve.


What we missed.

We've been off since Thursday. Here are a few bits of news that happened in the meantime:

  1. Elon Musk made a takeover bid for Twitter, offering to acquire all the shares of the company to "transform" it. (More on this story in today's Quick hits).
  2. The CDC extended a mask mandate on public transportation for 15 days, until May 3rd. (More on this story in today's Quick hits).
  3. New York police have arrested the gunman who opened fire on a Brooklyn subway car, shooting 10 people before fleeing the scene.
  4. Moskva, the flagship Russian warship of the Black Sea Fleet, sank after being damaged by an explosion. Ukraine says it hit the ship with missiles while Russia claims the explosion was from an ammunition fire on board.
  5. The FDA authorized the first-ever Covid-19 breath test.
  6. President Biden announced he would resume leasing for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

Quick hits.

  1. Twitter's board detailed a "poison pill" strategy to ensure no single shareholder can take more than 15% stake in the company without their approval. (The move)
  2. A federal judge in Florida struck down the CDC’s mask mandate on public transportation and the TSA subsequently announced it would no longer enforce it. Several major airlines made masks optional. (The ruling)
  3. Alex Jones' InfoWars filed for bankruptcy protection after he was found guilty of defamation and liable for damages for his false claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. (The bankruptcy)
  4. U.S. border patrol said they stopped migrants more than 220,000 times in March, a 33 percent increase from February and the highest number in two decades. (The numbers)
  5. In Ukraine, Russia initiated a large-scale offensive in Donbas, the hotly contested Eastern region of the country. (The offensive)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Presidential debates. On Thursday, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), effectively ending more than three decades of bipartisan cooperation to organize debates among the leading candidates for the White House.

The resolution, which the RNC passed unanimously, requires GOP presidential candidates to attest in writing that they will only appear in primary and general election debates sanctioned by the party, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Debates are an important part of the democratic process, and the RNC is committed to free and fair debates," Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said. "The Commission on Presidential Debates is biased and has refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage... Any presidential primary candidate who does not agree in writing, or who participates in any debate that is not a sanctioned debate, shall not be eligible to participate in any further sanctioned debates.”

The vote terminates a relationship between the RNC and CPD that has been deteriorating for years. For now, it could have the practical impact of keeping Republican candidates out of general election debates unless certain terms are met. The RNC says it will create a working group to sanction debates that meet their standards for moderators, timing and news networks, though individual candidates may ultimately hold the most sway on whether to participate in certain debates.

Ruptures between the CPD and RNC peaked in 2020 when then President Donald Trump refused to participate in a virtual debate with candidate Biden, after the commission cited concerns over the pandemic. Republicans had already been upset that the first debate was scheduled after over a million voters had already cast ballots, and the tension only intensified when Trump accused then Fox News host Chris Wallace and C-SPAN political editor and anchor Steve Scully of being "never-Trumpers."

After Trump criticized Scully, Scully accidentally sent a public message to former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci to ask for advice: "Should I respond to Trump?" he asked. When the message was posted to his public Twitter profile, and then quickly deleted, Scully claimed his account had been hacked. Then he admitted that was a lie, and the network suspended him (he left C-SPAN in June of 2021).

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary around the vote from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • Republicans argue that the CPD is biased against Republicans and has refused to make any necessary reforms.
  • Some say it's a good thing the current debate formats might be gone.
  • Others argue we should go back to the moderator-less debates that existed before the CPD took over.

In Breitbart, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote an op-ed explaining her position.

"It didn’t have to be this way. Over the past year, we have attempted to work with the CPD to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates going forward: hosting debates before voting begins, selecting balanced and unbiased moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage, and prohibiting board members from publicly disparaging nominees. A guarantee that they would fix these issues would have solved the problem, but they refused to do that," McDaniel wrote. "It’s time for new, unbiased, modern debate platforms to emerge... The CPD has repeatedly chosen debate moderators who exhibit clear bias towards Republican candidates.

"Steve Scully, who was chosen by the CPD to moderate a 2020 debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, was literally once an intern for Joe Biden," McDaniel wrote. "It came as little surprise to Republicans when Mr. Scully accidentally revealed prior to the debate that he was seeking advice on how to attack President Trump. In 2012, CNN anchor Candy Crowley interjected herself in the debate and falsely accused our nominee of lying. CNN’s Anderson Cooper even hosted a debate in 2016.  These are just a few examples of individuals chosen by the CPD to moderate debates who we believed would be biased and later showed it in action on the debate stage... Additionally, we requested the CPD hold at least one debate before the start of Early Voting. In fact, twenty-six states had begun absentee voting and uniformed military and overseas voting in all fifty states prior to the first general election debate of 2020."

In The Week, Samuel Goldman said "good riddance" to the "awkward group interview" we call debate.

"The CPD was established by the major parties in 1987 to secure more control of the process and exclude minor candidates... the format has remained the same: two candidates on a stage, responding to questions posed by a famous television news presenter," Goldman said. "We call that a 'debate,' but it's really not. In classic form, political debate involves speakers taking opposing positions on a fixed proposition. Real debate is a showcase for speakers' knowledge, poise, and rhetorical fluency. It doesn't prove they're suited to govern. But it does indicate whether they have a clear position on some important issue and are capable of defending it.

"The awkward group interview we call 'debate' does little of the kind," Goldman said. "The question-and-answer format either gives the speakers free rein to select their own topics or degenerates into tit-for-tat exchanges between participants or with the moderator. The tendency of moderators to challenge or correct candidates, rather than merely keeping time and maintaining the flow of questions, is one of Republicans' current grievances against the CPD. But it's not a recent or specifically partisan concern... When debates make a difference, finally, their influence may have less to do with their actual content than with media narratives about them. Because candidates' statements are usually vacuous, journalists tend to emphasize superficial qualities of vocal tone, body language, or diction. It's been said that if you want to know who 'won' a debate, watch with the sound turned off. That's an indictment of the whole exercise."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the GOP won't "defer anymore to Beltway Brahmins."

"The usual suspects are hyping this as a GOP attack on democracy and the American way," the board wrote. "Where’s the fainting couch? The reality is that sidelining the debate commission will merely put presidential campaigns back in charge. Debate topics and formats will be up for negotiation between the Republican and Democratic nominees. One of the GOP’s complaints about 2020 is how late the commission’s debates started. The first smackdown between President Trump and President Biden was Sept. 29. Roughly a million people had already voted. North Carolina began mailing absentee ballots on Sept. 4, without any process to let residents change their votes if they changed their minds before November.

"The second debate in 2020 was canceled. After Mr. Trump caught Covid-19, the commission switched the format to virtual. Mr. Trump refused to appear. As it happens, that debate was meant to be moderated by C-Span’s Steve Scully, who was suspended from his job the same week," the board wrote. "Mr. Trump had criticized Mr. Scully, who used Twitter to ask a Trump critic, 'should I respond to trump.' Then he lied that his Twitter account had been hacked... The upside of cashiering the debate commission is that there’s a chance to escape the stale Beltway formula. The next Republican nominee could insist on a debate with no moderators. One candidate gets two minutes, at which point the microphone goes dead. Then the other candidate goes. The nominees could choose their own best topics and pose tough questions directly to each other. Without a preening moderator, they’d get more time to actually debate."


What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes the move, saying Republicans are inventing grievances about the debates to avoid them altogether.
  • Some say it's just the latest attack on democratic institutions.
  • Others argue that Republicans are foolish to give up a chance to debate Joe Biden.

Erik Wemple criticized the Republicans’ grievances, saying the allegations actually reflect "the Republican Party’s own issues with facts."

"A central argument relates to the debates commission’s decision to name Steve Scully, then of C-SPAN, to moderate a debate in the 2020 presidential campaign between then-President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden," Wemple wrote. "The GOP’s gripe is that Scully had 'worked for' Biden when he was a senator. Technically, yes; practically, not even close. As a 17-year-old freshman at American University, Scully took a course on Congress and the presidency that included an assignment to a congressional office. 'I literally opened up the mail, read it, sorted it and put it in different bins,' recalls Scully. 'I never even got a picture with the guy.' All of this went down in 1978 — before Scully worked as an anchor and reporter in local TV news and before a 31-year career at C-SPAN. During that C-SPAN stretch, by the way, Scully became known for his patience and utter neutrality.

"The RNC is also aggrieved that several of the commission’s board members — six of the 10, according to McDaniel’s op-ed — have said 'disparaging things about the Republican nominee.' Board member Richard Parsons, who served in the Ford White House, said this to the Hollywood Reporter about Trump: 'He is, by nearly any measure that you want to identify, ill-equipped to be the president of the United States.' After Trump’s horrific remarks after the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in 2017, John Danforth, another board member and a former senator from Missouri, wrote in The Post that 'our party has been corrupted by this hateful man, and it is now in peril.' ... Both of those fellows are Republicans, which raises the question: Must Republican CPD members take a vow of loyalty to Trump to meet the RNC’s requirements?" Wemple asked.

In MSNBC, Steve Benen said the Commission on Presidential Debates "was nice while it lasted."

"In recent decades, political norms and Americans’ expectations have changed, and many simply assume that presidential hopefuls will take part in debates, but it appears that the Republican National Committee has effectively ended the modern era of debates for national candidates," Benen wrote. "According to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, this move is less about debates in general, and more about the party targeting the independent Commission on Presidential Debates, which Donald Trump and his party claim is ‘biased.’ It’s not, but reality isn’t especially important in this discussion... As we’ve discussed, in October 2020, the Trump campaign claimed the commission was secretly supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy (which wasn’t true).

"A week later, when the CPD announced that the second Trump-Biden debate would be virtual due to the pandemic, Republicans responded with outrage (which wasn’t justified)," Benen wrote. "It’s still possible, though improbable, that there will be some kind of resolution. Maybe the Commission on Presidential Debates will approve a series of RNC-demanded 'reforms,' which would lead the party to back off. Perhaps some future Republican presidential hopeful will ignore the RNC’s policy, agree to the independent commission’s format and schedule, and party officials will follow their nominee’s lead. Maybe a Democratic ticket and Republican ticket will negotiate their own debate plan separate from the commission. But if we’re being realistic, none of these scenarios is likely to come to fruition. On the contrary, as Republican hostility toward democracy grows, the party is targeting institutions that help serve as our democracy’s foundation."

In Brookings, John Hudak said Trump should be "furious" that the RNC nixed presidential debates.

"For most presidential candidates, debates are valuable," Hudak wrote. "They serve as a large-scale, long-format means of detailing their plans and policies to the American public. Thus, it is surprising that the Republican Party would opt out of these debates during this cycle. First, it is always challenging for a presidential challenger to get as much airtime as a sitting president. Because of the nature of the office and the committed press coverage to a sitting President, the incumbent already has a leg up on the competition when it comes to delivering their message to the public. While there have been rumors that President Biden may not seek a second term, the Republican Party must operate under the assumption that he will seek reelection. As a result, the presidential debates offer a challenger an opportunity to be on the same playing field—in some sense literally—as the sitting president.

"Second, presidential campaigns are always a clash and contrast of ideas, and there is no grander stage for that to be played out than in a debate," he wrote. "If a candidate is confident that they are a better candidate, with a more electable set of ideas, and would bring to the office a style and approach far superior to that of their opponent, they should clamor for the opportunity. Third, Republicans have been quite confident in their debate performances in recent elections. On July 2, 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted his own opinion of the 2016 Commission on Presidential Debate-sponsored events stating, 'As most people are aware according to the Polls I won EVERY debate including the three with Crooked Hillary Clinton.' In the following election cycle, the sitting president claimed to have won both debates once again. After the first debate, he told the press corps, '[b]y every measure, we won the debate easily last night.' He even went on to suggest that despite his own desire for more debates, then-former Vice President Joe Biden wanted to opt out."


My take.

I'm struggling to get excited about the whole thing.

For starters, I definitely don't think this marks the "end" of presidential debates. It'd be foolhardy for Republicans not to participate in general election debates, especially given the current (very favorable) political climate. Even the appearance of a party nominee backing out of a debate would look terrible politically, and I'm surprised so many pundits are confident this decision means 2024 presidential debates won't happen. I find that prediction rather unlikely. I also don't think the CPD represents "democracy’s foundation," as Steve Benen warns, given that it has only existed for a little over 40 years.

The single most valid grievance the RNC has is the timing of the debates. It is, in my opinion, unacceptable for the first debate to happen after the first ballots have been cast. Voters should get at least one nationally televised general election showdown before any general election voting takes place. The RNC has claimed they could not get any assurances on this; the CPD has (so far) stayed mum on the entire thing. If it's true that they wouldn't budge on moving the debates a little earlier in 2024, that's a fairly big issue — one worth hammering the commission for. I’m not sure if it’s worth severing the relationship, but it isn’t a small thing, either.

Still, it's hard to swallow much else Republicans are saying in this debate. Their primary grievance — as articulated by Ronna McDaniel — is still swirling around Steve Scully, the C-SPAN anchor who interned for Joe Biden, part-time, for six weeks, in 1978... as a 17-year old. The idea that this is disqualifying for a debate moderator is ludicrous. I feel for Scully: My first job was at the Huffington Post, not because I was a bleeding heart liberal who loved their politics (my only prior experience was as a college sports reporter), but because I applied to 30 other places and they were the only ones that hired me. It's been nearly a decade and I'm still fighting to shed the assumptions about me from that first gig.

Scully's modern crime, in the GOP's eyes, was messaging Scaramucci — who by then was a Trump enemy — and asking whether he should reply to Trump's attacks on him, then trying to deny the affair with the obvious lie that his account was hacked. But McDaniel characterized this exchange as Scully "seeking advice on how to attack President Trump," when really he was seeking advice on how to defend himself from Trump's unprovoked attacks. The distinction here matters.

C-SPAN's consequential suspension of Scully was the right move, given his unethical contacts with a former Trump aide and the fact he lied about it. But I don't think any of it was proof he was unqualified or too biased to moderate debates. Certainly, it wasn't evidence the CPD was working to kill Trump's candidacy. Scully had one of the finest reputations for neutrality in the business, and as he said when defending himself, he spent 31 years on TV conducting over 8,000 interviews without ever expressing a single political opinion. I can't think of another moderator with television experience who could have come close to Scully's on-air neutrality.

The second most legitimate gripe is that the moderator for the third debate, MSNBC's Kristen Welker, didn't ask Biden about his son Hunter's laptop and the story surrounding it. I criticized this in real-time, but also thought that was more a product of luck than anything else: If the story had broken before the first debate, Fox News’s Chris Wallace or Scully almost certainly would have asked about it. Welker was always the more left-of-center moderator, and it's not like the topics she did cover — race, climate change, leadership and national security — were of any less significance. Even so, there was near unanimous agreement at the time that she did better than Wallace, who oversaw the chaotic and absurd first debate of 2020.

And, by the way, Trump celebrated that debate, repeatedly praising Welker, and declaring unequivocally that he had won and the debate was going to benefit him. I wrote after that debate that Trump “looked stronger, younger and more comfortable on stage than Biden.” In other words, the debate with the left-leaning moderator went better for Trump than the one with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

Another fair hit about the process was the fact Donna Brazile, then a CNN contributor, leaked a debate question to Hillary Clinton in 2016. This was a good reminder of the insider-y nature of the candidate showdowns, but that scandal had nothing to do with the CPD's malfeasance, and Brazile lost her CNN contract for the move (and was then hired by Fox News).

All of which begs the question: Why do this? If Trump swept the 2016 and 2020 debates, as he and the RNC claim; if Kristen Welker did a good job, as they said at the time; then is this really about Scully's tweet, or his brief teenage internship from nearly 45 years ago? It makes me think they are either working the refs or hoping to have an “out” from debates where they don’t trust the moderator.

Surely, the debate format could use some changes, and I'd love it if at least one of the debates in 2024 was unmoderated. Why not? Let's see what happens with two minutes each, where candidates can ask each other questions, and then a hard mute button. If the RNC can score some reasonable reforms, or usher in a fresh take on the format, I'll give them credit. Maybe just a single “Trumpy” moderator — like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson — would do the trick. But for now, I'm just not sure that boycotting the CPD is the way to make any meaningful changes. I'm certainly not convinced that the RNC's stated grievances are justification for this boycott. And if this leads to a year without any actual general election debates, however unlikely I think that is, it'll be a travesty for the process as a whole.


A story that matters.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ended enhanced inspections of commercial vehicles on the Texas-Mexico border, days after the initiative caused major backlogs on the border crossing. Abbott had announced the initiative last week in response to the end of Title 42, but the inspections were widely panned by Mexican truck drivers who blockaded border crossings in protest and slowed the delivery of food to grocery stores in the U.S. Abbott says he has struck a deal with all four governors of Mexican border states to enhance security and tracking of migration to help slow the flow of illegal border crossings. National Review has the story.


Numbers.

  • 43%. The percentage of all registered voters who said they would vote for a Democratic congressional candidate if the midterm elections were held today, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico poll.
  • 42%. The percentage of all registered voters who said they would vote for a Republican congressional candidate if the midterm elections were held today, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico poll.
  • 16%. The percentage of voters who said they didn't know or had no opinion.
  • 3%. The percentage of voters who said they were undecided in the week before the first 2020 debate.
  • 84 million. The number of people who watched the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • 63%. The percentage of voters who said the 2016 debates were "very" or "somewhat" helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for.

Have a nice day.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has determined the size of the largest icy comet ever seen by astronomers: 80 miles across. That makes the comet wider than the state of Rhode Island, and its mass is estimated to be 500 trillion tons. And the good news? It'll never get closer than 1 billion miles away from the sun, which is a little bit further away than Saturn. That'll be in the year 2031. For now, we can just marvel in amazement at a telescope that can even spot such a comet — and a system that can accurately predict its trajectory nearly 10 years out. NASA has the story.


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