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Retire the Commission on Presidential Debates

They have one job and they do it terribly

October 9, 2020

5:38 PM

9 October 2020

5:38 PM

Two-hundred-and-thirty-three. That is the combined age of the three co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates, an organization which has become embroiled in several eyebrow-raising incidents in the past three elections. (Candy Crowley anyone?)

The debates haven’t revealed much this election season. Trump is being Trump and Biden is allowed to skate by without answering questions. In fact, the most consequential revelation has been how ill-equipped the Commission for Presidential Debates is for the moment, and for the future. The Commission finds itself as the focal point of the debates, thanks to their choices of moderators and their on-the-fly rule changes.

Like the WHO, which botched a global pandemic, the Commission has literally one job to do — facilitate debate rules from two opposing campaigns. It is not their job to act as the deciding arbiter of debate rules. The moderator’s role in a presidential debate is to ask questions and keep time. That’s it. Chris Wallace, the sole moderator of the first debate, was far too invested in bickering, primarily with the President. Wallace was even laughing along with Joe Biden towards the end. In this week’s VP debate, Susan Page cut into the time she’d allocated to both candidates on several occasions, perhaps in a concerted effort to right the wrongs of the previous debate. 


Now the Committee is fumbling its way toward a second debate that may or may not happen, in person or virtually. A hiccup with their chosen moderator, Steve Scully, blew up into a scandal. On Thursday night, a tweet appeared on Scully’s feed which seemed to be a response or attempted direct message to former White House communications substitute teacher Anthony Scaramucci. The tweet simply read ‘Should I respond to Trump?’ It wasn’t so much what the tweet said, but who it was directed at, a former Trump admin flunky turned Resistance cable news hero. No wonder the Commission canceled his scheduled debate on October 15, under the guise of ‘health and safety’ reasons.

Scully was also an intern for Joe Biden in DC during his Senate career. The cabal of journalists and commentators who were former aides, cabinet members and interns is growing too prominent to ignore. Members of the televised media who have worked for Democratic presidents or members of Congress include Chuck Todd, George George Stephanopoulos, Jim Sciutto and Jake Tapper. Anderson Cooper briefly served on an executive panel of the Clinton Foundation. On the Republican side, there’s Fox’s Dana Perino. None of this is to say that these people wouldn’t be capable of handling a debate — but wouldn’t it be easier to avoid accusations of bias by simply not considering these people, or other print and web journalists with political ties, as debate hosts?

Bias isn’t the only problem here however. Older members of the traditional media are losing their audiences to tech platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. On top of that, as in Scully’s case, these old hacks are clueless about how these platforms operate and who their audience is. Significant conversations don’t take place on CNN panels anymore. They happen on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. Any future commission should be considering moderators with audiences and followings on these platforms. Joe Rogan has been repeatedly floated as someone with more of a grasp of the problems facing the average Americans today than any suit sitting behind a corporate news desk in New York or DC.

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Other candidates worth considering are former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe and Breakfast Club radio host Charlamagne tha God, who has a habit of asking inconvenient questions to the politicians who come to pander to his majority African American and Hispanic audience. He grilled Elizabeth Warren about her DNA test and got Hillary Clinton talking about hot sauce. 

Another idea: do away with ‘impartial’ moderators altogether and pair right-wing moderators up with left-wing moderators. Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow: why not? Then again, perhaps the American public would be better served if the debates involved cable news as little as possible. They could be hosted on YouTube or Facebook and terrestrial channels alone.

Whatever the solution, the current Commission needs to go. It is a fossilized institution that has grown more and more inept with every election that comes its way. It’s a new ballgame, with new rules and a new media. These debates are far too important to be left to the same old people making the same old mistakes.


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