Biden Rejects Commission on Presidential Debates

The President wants an alternative schedule and format.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – OCTOBER 22: U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the November 3 election. (Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

USA Today (“Defying election tradition, Biden proposes debating Trump twice, wants first one in June.“) buries the lede:

President Joe Biden says he is willing to debate Donald Trump twice before the general election — and he wants the first one to take place in June, setting the stage for the earliest head-to-head competition among the major parties’ candidate in modern history.

Biden’s campaign informed the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted the matches since 1988, that it would not be participating in a series of debates scheduled for the fall.

To me, that’s the obviously headline. It takes quite a while for the story to circle back to it, with an explanation:

[A statement by the Biden team] complained that the commission’s debates are structured like an “entertainment spectacle and not a serious exchange of ideas that reflect the enormous stakes of the election” and dinged the organization for past failings to enforce its own rules.

While I take the point, there’s essentially no way to enforce the rules without the moderators appearing to take sides. There’s a pretty long history of candidates talking over their opponents, crowding their space when speaking, and otherwise attempting to impose their will. Moderators usually issue gentle warnings but kind of let it happen. On very rare occasions, they shut off microphones or otherwise try to dominate. Invariably, that leads supporters of the affected candidate to cry Foul.

Biden may well get his way, though.

In a statement, the Biden campaign said it wants the first to debate to take place June, when Trump’s hush money trail in New York is “likely to be over” and after Biden returns from the Group of Seven Summit in mid June before Republicans officially award their nomination. It proposed a second debate in September “prior to the beginning of early voting,” echoing a Trump campaign demand.

It also proposed a vice presidential debate to take place in late July after the Republicans officially nominate Trump and his running mate to be on their ticket.

The general election involved three presidential debates and a vice presidential debate for nearly two decades, until one was abruptly called off in 2020 when Trump rejected the commission’s plan to make it virtual following his positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The last time that two debates were held was in 1996. Both matches and the vice presidential debate took place in October that year.

Debates put forward by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates — the corporation that has traditionally picked the times, locations and moderators of sparring matches — were due to begin on September 16.

[…]

Trump’s team had previously called for earlier debates on account of early votingAnd the GOP candidate accepted Biden’s proposed timeframe for the debates in a social media post almost immediately.

The presumptive GOP nominee said he was “Ready and Willing to Debate” him “at the two proposed times in June and September.”

“I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue, although Biden is supposedly afraid of crowds,” he wrote. “That’s only because he doesn’t get them. Just tell me when, I’ll be there. ‘Let’s get ready to Rumble!!!'”

It did not take long for news outlets to begin making offers.

“I’ve received and accepted an invitation from @CNN for a debate on June 27th. Over to you, Donald. As you said: anywhere, any time, any place,” Biden said in an X post.

In a video posted to social media earlier that morning, Biden had taken a jab at Trump for refusing to participate in a single Republican primary debate this cycle. He said he’d make good on a promise to debate Trump, telling him, “Make my day pal, I’ll even do it twice.

“Let’s pick the dates Donald, I hear you’re free on Wednesdays,” Biden said, making a veiled reference to Trump’s ongoing criminal trial.

I’d honestly prefer Biden not engage in such juvenalia. His selling point is being the grownup in the room, in strong contrast to Trump the toddler. Regardless, Trump is at least pretending to be eager to debate Biden early and often.

The setup, though, is likely to be the sticking point more than the schedule.

Biden’s campaign further stipulated in a statement that the president plans to participate in debates that are hosted by news outlets.

[…]

It said it wants the first debate to be hosted by a television network that hosted a Republican primary debate in 2016 that participated in and a Democratic debate in 2020 that Biden participated in “so neither campaign can assert that the sponsoring organization is obviously unacceptable.” They should also be “one-on-one” the Biden campaign said, “allowing voters to compare the only two candidates with any statistical chance of prevailing in the Electoral College.”

The latter stipulation was intended to ensure that third-party candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are not allowed on stage. Prior debates have had a 15% debate threshold. Kennedy had 8% support in the latest USA TODAY/Suffolk University survey.

Keeping minor candidates off the stage is likely something both major candidates will endorse. Trump may well not agree to having antagonistic journalists, ala Candy Crowley, serve as moderators.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bill Jempty says:

    May I suggest walkers or canes at twenty paces?

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    While I take the point, there’s essentially no way to enforce the rules without the moderators appearing to take sides

    I haven’t watched a debate in years as I find them completely worthless. But if we are going to have them, and the rules aren’t going to be enforced, than they are worse than worthless, they actually contribute to the erosion of our discourse. Biden is right to demand Trump’s microphone be cut off. He should be behind a glass wall too.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    I’m baffled by the timing. Have we ever had debates before the conventions before? Is anyone other than a few news junkies desperate for their fix even paying attention yet?

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  4. Andy says:

    I have no problem with dumping the stupid Commission on Presidential Debates, but that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of the circus that debates have become.

    Any debate will still need a moderator, and both sides will need to agree to the debate rules. Once the debate starts, there will be strong incentives to break those rules; whoever is the moderator (what a thankless job) will get criticized by the usual suspects – so I don’t see how anything changes.

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  5. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Biden’s team seems to be leaning heavily into the idea that Biden will get better in the polls once the Trump crazy gets more public exposure. So, an early debate might do that for him, especially if it comes on the heels of a criminal conviction. If Biden “wins” that debate, it could kill any Trump momentum early, sending him to the convention as a double looser. At least, that’s my guess at their thinking.

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  6. Kathy says:

    How about Stephanie Clifford as moderator?

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  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Andy: Removing a live audience so debate participants can’t play to the crowd or gain energy from it would help a lot.

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  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Mr. Prosser: There is no way Trump would agree to a debate without being able to pack it with his loons. And even he must realize that having his mic cut off would leave people with time to think about what the nonsense word salad he spews. Which may be what Biden has in mind. It may be his intent to have Trump essentially refuse to debate. We will see how firm his team is with these two demands.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    Well, that was quick. TPM is reporting Trump agreed to Biden’s debate proposal. I’ll believe it when I see it, but at the very least Trump didn’t want to appear back footed.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    On further inspection, Trump hasn’t agreed to Biden’s terms at all. In fact, he’s calling for a large venue with a huge crowd.

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  11. Bill Jempty says:

    @MarkedMan:

    On further inspection, Trump hasn’t agreed to Biden’s terms at all. In fact, he’s calling for a large venue with a huge crowd.

    Are Barnum and Bailey still in business?

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan:
    As always, Trump is a shark – tiny brain, great predatory instincts. He knows that alone on a stage with Biden he’s going to be humiliated. Biden could ask him the simplest question about foreign policy, or history, and Trump would do one of his mumble mumble whimper sigh answers. No, he needs a crowd. Even more, he needs a pretext to refuse to debate.

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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    In 1960 the third televised debate between Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon of California and Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts originated from two locations with Nixon at the ABC studio in Los Angeles and Kennedy at the ABC studio in New York. Seems like I remember a story about how a can of paint was flown from coast to coast so the TV sets on both sides of the country would look the same.
    May I suggest that one of this years debates follow a similar format only with Trump speaking from Moscow and Biden speaking from Kyiv.
    Maybe Dr. Joyner would be available to referee this donnybrook.

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  14. Scott F. says:

    Trump writes:

    “I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes , a very large venue…”

    … and he shows his cards.

    Trump wants to have one of his rallies where Biden would come to stand there in order to be mocked in TFG’s signature style. Counterintuitively, I think Biden could take Trump up on that. More people need to see first hand how demented, cruel, and incoherent Trump has become when playing to his crowd. Biden could just sit there as Trump riffs on Al Capone, hot dogs, the Big Lie, killer windmills, etc. and then occasionally say “is this clown really the best the GOP can do?”

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  15. gVOR10 says:

    “I would strongly recommend more than two debates and, for excitement purposes, a very large venue, although Biden is supposedly afraid of crowds,” he wrote. “That’s only because he doesn’t get them.

    That’s a good shot.

    when Trump’s hush money trail in New York is “likely to be over” and after Biden returns from the Group of Seven Summit in mid June

    Is a much better one.

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  16. Erik says:

    Proposal: Both participants get a total of 30 minutes to talk, and may use as much time as they like to answer a question or respond to the other participant, but when they run out of time they have to sit there silently while the other participant keeps answering questions or responding. The next question only gets asked when both participants have had the opportunity to answer a question and one of them says “next question” instead of addressing the topic. That person is first to answer the next question. This would encourage anyone who wanted to get the last word in (or even just get to stay in the conversation) to keep his answers brief, and there would be no opportunity for someone to sandbag the opponent by throwing out bullshit and having the moderator refuse to let the other party respond. Fewer questions might be asked, but that would encourage the moderator to front load important ones

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    Biden’s team as Trump tried to “accept” rather than actually accept:

    Biden’s team is not playing along.

    “President Biden made his terms clear for two one-on-one debates, and Donald Trump accepted those terms,” campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon said in an afternoon statement. “No more games. No more chaos, no more debate about debates.”

    Biden needs to stick to that.

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  18. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Haven’t had a chance to verify this, but NPR was reporting this afternoon at 4pm PDT that the debates will take place in a soundstage without an audience. Can’t believe Drump was daft into agree, but if that’s the case, I’m anticipating something along the lines of an SCTV or Laugh-In skit. Or maybe Bozo the Clown.

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  19. Ken_L says:

    Media reports are that Trump has accepted Biden’s initial offer, with conditions that should ensure some substance in the exchange, or at least permit it. Strict adherence to time limits, automatic mic cut-off when your time’s up, no audience, mainstream moderators. Trump Republicans seem to have been caught flat-footed, sensing a trap but not quite figuring out where it is. I suspect Trump accepted quickly to avoid looking like he was all piss and wind with his “anytime anywhere” windbaggery.

    Thing is, Trump obviously doesn’t like debating. He pulled out of one in the 2016 primary; he refused to do any in this year’s primary; and he famously pulled out of one against Biden in 2020. He also announced he’s accepted an invitation from Fox to a debate on October 2, which kind of makes a mockery of his earlier insistence they be held well before voting started. It would not be a total surprise if he were to claim Biden’s rejection of this Fox debate means the whole deal is off.

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  20. Ken_L says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Biden needs to stick to that.

    I’m pretty sure he will. Not debating because Trump backed out of a deal is a better position for Biden than having to waste days preparing for events that would probably have little influence on voter intentions.

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  21. Mike in Arlington says:

    The thing is that the GOP already pulled out of the commission in 2022, so it’s not like this was Biden’s big decision to dump the commission, he was just following the GOP’s lead.
    https://www.npr.org/2022/04/14/1092916451/republicans-say-theyre-quitting-the-biased-commission-on-presidential-debates

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