This past Sunday night brought with it a small blip on the political radar that, if you weren’t looking closely, you might have missed altogether. Still, Sunday’s “family dinner” of Republican candidates — in which representatives at least 11 campaigns met in a Virginia hotel to discuss the recent CNBC-hosted debate — changed the way we do presidential debates for the worse.
In the meeting, which was moderated by conservative election lawyer Ben Ginsberg, the campaigns collectively decided that future primary debates would operate almost entirely independent of the Republican Party. The GOP, they decided, would no longer have any role in negotiating debate conditions — such as types of questions, and whether candidates get opening statements — and would instead be relegated to ticketing and other purely-logistical tasks.
The move comes on the heels of a debate disparaged by every candidate as either unfair, toxic, or both (presumably because CNBC’s moderators asked them uncomfortable, important questions), but the list of demands drawn up by Ginsberg, and currently under review by each of the participating campaigns, is not about the debates: it’s about power.
Put simply, the candidates can publicly defy their own party and embarrass its leader, Reince Priebus, because they don’t need them anymore. Between the 2011 Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the 2014 McCutcheon decision, campaigns for national office today are much less reliant on fundraising dollars from the two major parties and much more reliant, especially in the form of advertising, on help from super PACs, so-called “dark money” organizations, and other actors who have fueled the recent debate over campaign finance reform. In January, for example, Charles and David Koch announced their plan to spend $900 million influencing this election season’s outcomes, a number that rivals the national Republican Party’s spending efforts across all races in 2012.
Two other recent developments, neither of them very good harbingers for the rest of this election season, probably influenced the candidates’ decisions: the huge popularity of Donald Trump, and a little-known rule change made by both the Republican and Democratic National Committees before the primaries even got started.
Donald Trump’s influence on these debates is pretty straightforward: FOX’s first Republican presidential debate a few weeks ago drew 24 million viewers, more than double the viewership of the final Democratic primary debate in 2008, between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In other words, the candidates know that they are valuable assets, capable of bringing in millions of dollars in advertising revenue for debate hosts. If Donald Trump says he doesn’t want to debate in front of a Telemundo audience — which was one of the demands of his campaign in Sunday’s “family dinner” meeting — he doesn’t have to, to the detriment of Republican voters who might be curious what he would have to say to a majority-Hispanic audience.
The rule change at the beginning of this election cycle is — if it’s possible — more sinister than Donald Trump. Both parties, in an unprecedented move in American electoral history, made participation in their official, party-sponsored events contingent upon exclusivity: Republicans cannot debate Libertarians, Democrats cannot debate the Green Party, if they want to be on prime time TV.
Such a rule change seems like an odd move for two major parties dealing with new fundraising competitors — why “bundle” donors in support of the party if you can establish a single-issue or single-candidate PAC? — and record disapproval ratings, but the Republican and Democratic party leadership can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid what’s happened these last few election cycles: bitter primary fights that divide the base and distract from establishing a party-wide base of support for the eventual nominee. In this sense, the debate limitations — not only the exclusivity clause, but also the Republicans’ re-definition of how delegates are awarded — were a move meant to directly counter the growing role of outside money, often used to fund candidates who otherwise wouldn’t have the widespread support necessary to stay in the race.
Presidential debates have never been “democratic” in the traditional sense, especially after the primaries are finished. Before the very first televised debate ever, in 1960, Congress temporarily suspended the “equal time” provision of the Federal Communications Act so that Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon could speak without interruption from “third” parties. The FCC later changed the rule permanently. There’s only ever been one independent candidate in a televised debate, Ross Perot.
In 1988, the League of Women Voters refused to continue hosting presidential debates, like they had done the previous three election cycles, because “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American vote,” according to their official press release in early October of that year, which was unsparing. George Bush and Michael Dukakis’s campaigns had demanded, without negotiation, “selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press,” among other things, and the League refused to become “an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
In their place, the Commission on Presidential Debates was created by representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties, and is now co-chaired by former gaming lobbyist and RNC chair Frank Fahrenkopf, and Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary. The Commission — a private, non-profit entity — is an organ of the two major parties, and since 2000 they’ve required a showing of 15 percent support across five national polls in order to be invited to a debate. No independent has passed that threshhold since.
So it would be naïve to expect that presidential debates, in the primaries or otherwise, are really in service of the democratic process: they serve the two major parties, whose grip on the electoral process they have only strengthened; they serve the television networks, whose ratings this year on debates have rivaled the NFL and hit sitcoms; they serve the donors, who scramble to buy advertising spots during the most politically-engaged hour(s) on TV; and now, they serve the candidates themselves, who have successfully leveraged their own hand to turn a supposedly journalistic endeavor into a joint press conference. But they don’t serve the public.
At what point will we begin to ask if these debates are doing more harm than good? The question could be reasonably applied to a number of political institutions — elected judges, for example, or certain farm subsidies, or the entirety of the U.S. Congress — but none have so recently and dramatically taken a turn for the worse, as evidenced by Ginsburg’s “family dinner.” Now the candidates, and the political action committees so coincidentally led by their former advisors and confidants, will dictate their own terms. According to Ginsburg, the candidates “want to hear from the networks about what's going to go into those debates and they'll make a decision after some negotiations with the people who put on the debates.”
Surely, we can trust everyone involved in these negotiations to have voters’ best interests at heart.