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Jonathan Bernstein

Is This the End for Presidential Debates?

For better or worse, general-election debates have become an American institution. Why are Republicans ducking out now?

End of an era?

End of an era?

Photographer: MPI/Getty.

It’s sort of a miracle that televised general-election debates ever happened at all in the U.S. If the Republican National Committee gets its way, they may never happen again. Their apparent demise tells us a few important things about the Republican Party, but before getting to that it’s worth thinking about the institution itself.

To begin with, debates just never should’ve happened. Most campaign professionals don’t like to subject their candidates to high-profile unscripted events, and general-election debates are extremely high profile. That goes double for a campaign that thinks its candidate is winning. Why risk the possibility that something could go wrong? Moreover, the conventional wisdom has always been that by participating in one-on-one debates, incumbents elevate their opponent. Presidents always seem “presidential” and challengers rarely do — but supposedly that gap is narrowed by watching them debate as formal equals. More basically: Given that both candidates have to agree to participate, a debate requires both campaigns to think they’ll benefit, which can’t be true.

It’s not surprising that the first televised presidential debate (in 1960) featured a vice president, Richard Nixon, who was generally considered to be a master of television and was certainly extremely well prepared to discuss public policy. Vice presidents are oddly situated in the news media. On one hand, they’re the closest anyone can come to having presidential experience without actually having been president. But at the same time they’re typically objects of ridicule. So a campaign by a vice president involves shedding the vice presidency, and it made sense for Nixon to go ahead with the debate — and in an election that was expected to be (and was) very close, neither candidate risked squandering a big lead.

In two of the next three elections, 1964 and 1972, incumbent presidents on their way to landslides had no interest in repeating that experiment. Nor did a debate happen in 1968, an election that demonstrated another reason candidates may be reluctant: Nominees of badly divided parties, as both Democrats and Republicans were at the time, may want to stay as vague as possible on policy questions to preserve peace within the party — and a televised debate isn’t very appealing to a candidate trying to avoid talking about controversial issues.

So how did debates become institutionalized? It was largely a fluke. In 1976, President Gerald Ford was far behind in the polls and was unusually lacking in “presidential” stature. (He had never run nationally himself, given that he had been chosen for the vice presidency under the 25th Amendment after Spiro Agnew resigned, and then became president when Nixon stepped down.) He chose to debate. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was also well behind in the polls (and, having won an election after debating, presumably was more likely than any previous incumbent to be confident that debates were likely to help him). He also agreed to go ahead.

Debates were thus regularized and expectations changed. By 1984, any candidate who refused to participate risked being blamed for undermining an important democratic institution. Apparently the incentives were sufficient to convince President Ronald Reagan (who, like Carter, had won an election after debating) to participate, thereby making it an even stronger norm that major party nominees would debate. And so on up through 2020.

So what happened? Well, nothing yet; it’s one thing for the Republican National Committee to pull out of debates in spring 2022; it’s another for an actual nominee to refuse to debate in fall 2024.

Nor would it be a disaster for democracy if the debates die. I don’t think they’re worthless, but they are overrated. They appeal to a good-government vision of democracy in which neutral voters carefully study public-policy issues, take positions and then vote for the candidate who objectively is the closest match to those positions. But in real-world democracies, it’s just as likely that voters choose candidates first, and then select the policy positions those candidates hold. There’s nothing wrong with that; voters can choose candidates and parties based on whatever they like. But for better or worse, presidential debates have become a symbol of U.S. democracy, and in that sense, ending them would be a blow against democracy just when it could use some additional support.

As for the Republicans? Refusing to participate because of supposed bias fits their long-term agenda of undermining the concept of political neutrality, whether it’s in the media, the bureaucracy, science or anything else. Of course, none of these institutions is purely unbiased. But it’s one thing to say that everyone has biases; it’s another to say that everyone is either a partisan Democrat or a partisan Republican. That’s never been true in the U.S., and it’s still untrue now.