Since 1988, the high-stakes head-to-head presidential debates have been organized and administered by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). But now, in a move that threatens to sink what has become an American tradition, the Republican National Committee has voted unanimously to ban future GOP candidates from participating in what it calls a “biased” and partisan sideshow.
RNC chief Ronna McDaniel put it bluntly in a statement announcing the decision, saying:
“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.”
This move does not mean presidential debates will not happen, however. Instead, prospective candidates for the GOP will agree to debate in a forum or format that does not involve the CPD. The threat to pull out is contingent on a number of reforms that McDaniel lauds as “comonsense” stuff.
A History of Bias?
Republicans are insisting that the commission enact a series of reforms that would establish transparent criteria for selecting moderators and creating a code of conduct for those moderators. But do the RNC’s allegations of bias hold water?
For the 2020 debates, the moderators selected were Chris Wallace, Steve Scully, and Kristen Welker – the Scully debate was canceled after certain tweets of his were revealed. For observers of the two remaining debates, how well each moderator performed likely came down to which candidate they supported. However, reporters on both sides of the aisle admitted to some degree that then-candidate Biden was rescued from several tricky situations by opportune moderator interruptions. Did the moderators have a favored candidate? And perhaps more importantly, did they allow their own feelings to interfere with their assigned roles?
Chris Wallace has worked in broadcast journalism for almost 50 years, employed at one time or another by CBS, NBC, and ABC, among other prominent outlets. His most recent stint as an anchor was with Fox News, a position he held while hosting both the 2016 and 2020 debates. Wallace’s performance in 2016 was widely regarded as solid. His efforts in 2020 were quite the opposite.
During Trump’s time in the White House, Wallace became prone to on-air outbursts regarding the 45th president. When the Mueller Report was released in 2019, Wallace railed at its conclusions, insinuating that the president had gotten away with serious crimes. “Process crimes are not parking tickets. Process crimes are lying to federal prosecutors, they’re lying to the FBI…This is the very basis of which justice is administered. And to the degree that which commit perjury, that’s a very serious crime,” he said.
Wallace later jumped ship from his network to join CNN Plus, the struggling digital subscriber platform.
The second presidential debate was unceremoniously canceled after Scully mistakenly tweeted what he thought was a private message to Trump ally-turned-enemy Anthony Scaramucci. Scully asked whether he should respond to allegations from the president that he was a “Never-Trumper.” He was later suspended from his role at C-Span for lying about his Twitter account being hacked. But was he biased or simply careless?
In 2016, Scully shared an article from The New York Times titled, “No, Not Trump, Not Ever.” Added to this furor was the revelation – coming out after the debate was supposed to happen – that he had worked previously for Biden when the latter was in the Senate. A pattern of poor choices by the CPD emerged.
Welker is a long-term staple at NBC. When she hosted the final debate between Trump and Biden, the 45th president had already made disparaging claims about her and her political affiliations. But how accurate was The Donald?
According to the New York Post, Welker’s family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party candidates over the years, including Barack Obama in 2012, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and even Joe Biden in 2020. Moreover, Welker herself spent Christmas 2012 at the White House in the company of the Obamas.
“Anyone who’s ever dealt with Welker knows she’s an activist, not a reporter. The White House press team views her the same way they would AOC or Pelosi if they walked in the office,” a senior White House official said prior to the debate.
A Smart Decision?
That all three moderators for the 2020 presidential debates were apparently inclined either towards a Democrat president, or by implication the removal of Donald Trump, was perhaps one misstep too many for the CPD. The hosts being openly critical of the sitting president prior to the debates should have set alarm bells ringing much earlier.
Is the RNC right in its assessment of partisanship? By their fruits shall ye know them.