President Trump is lining up a fresh target for his bullying. After assaulting science, the media, US intelligence services, and absentee voting, he’s now ginning up a war on the commission that sponsors presidential debates.
Let’s begin with the presidential demand that the candidates hold a veto on the choice of moderator. We know from experience where this is headed.
Take the unlikely scenario that Trump and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s enforcer and personal attorney, succeed with this gambit. In that case, we would be back to the situation that existed before the Commission on Presidential Debates took charge.
That was in 1984, when representatives for president Ronald Reagan and former vice president Walter Mondale rejected a grand total of 104 moderators before they could agree on who they wanted questioning them.
This is the sort of partisan chaos Trump relishes: days of leaks about which member of the press has been struck from the list, news cycles riven with personal insults.
Imagine the bickering Trump could ignite between Giuliani and Joe Biden’s agent as each side holds out for a partisan ally. What if one demands gender and racial diversity in the selection and Trump obstructs? Does anyone expect such a free-for-all to end well?
Trump may be thinking he’s got a win-win here. Should the debate commission hold its ground and refuse to forfeit its key role in moderator selection, the president could declare the whole process “rigged.”
The recurring story here is Trump’s need, dramatized in every episode of his life, to either control or destroy. In this case, that includes not just the question of who gets to ask the questions but when.
The commission has laid out its familiar schedule, beginning on Sept. 28, of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. Biden, through his agent Ron Klain, quickly accepted the schedule. Trump and Giuliani rejected it. They want a fourth presidential debate earlier in September. Giuliani says it would meet the needs of early voters to see at least one candidate-to-candidate encounter. A skeptic might wonder why a president who has attacked voting by mail as corrupt would be so supportive of those who choose to do so.
But, again, is the Trump-Giuliani push for the earlier debate a good-faith request to be worked out with the commission and Biden, or is it a Trump ultimatum, like his demand to veto the moderators? Does he want an equitable, credible set of 2020 debates or a hedge against a bad debate night — or election night — outcome?
What’s at stake is an institution that has served democracy quite well. The Commission on Presidential Debates has made a highly credible effort to keep these quadrennial events on the level.
That was not always the case. A week before his first 1960 debate with Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy was accorded a personal run-through on the debate’s staging by the debate director. At Kennedy’s request, the debate director agreed to meet the Democratic nominee in an airport hangar at Chicago’s Midway airport, where he proceeded to answer all of Kennedy’s questions about the debate’s staging.
Today, the commission gives both candidates a 45-minute “walk-through” where all such questions are addressed. It’s fair and out in the open.
The commission has also kept debate operations entirely away from the candidates themselves. This, too, has been a necessary reform.
Consider the back-and-forth before the second Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960. Concerned about Nixon’s effusive sweating in the first matchup in Chicago, his team was determined to avoid that happening again at the second debate in Washington. A Nixon aide arrived early at the NBC bureau, located the air-conditioning unit in the basement, and lowered the temperature in the studio to the level of a meat locker.
Arriving closer to air-time, Kennedy aide Bill Wilson raced down to the basement and had it out with the Nixon agent manning the thermostat. After a physical tussle, they agreed on a compromise temperature.
One of the great achievements of the Commission on Presidential Debates has been not only to end that kind of craziness but also to ensure that debates occur.
The prominence of the commission makes it hard for a candidate leading in the polls simply to refuse to give the other person the national exposure. After Kennedy and Nixon debated in 1960, there was no guarantee such televised encounters would continue. Indeed, the favorites in the next three presidential elections declined to participate.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson — buoyed by a wave of national sentiment in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination — saw no need to give his underdog opponent such a prized national platform in 1964.
Neither was Nixon inclined to debate in 1968 and 1972. Stung by the quartet of televised encounters with Kennedy, the tapes of which he refused ever to watch, Nixon made the same calculation as Johnson.
The same failure to debate came close to happening in 1980. President Jimmy Carter and Governor Ronald Reagan of California didn’t meet each other except for a single debate, a week before the election.
Trump’s demands about the schedule and choice of moderator is where he likes to be, fighting any institution or person who fails to obey him, all the time posing as the outsider taking on the elite establishment. His most obvious motive is to create a fight he either wins outright, or an excuse for his failure to perform, either in the debates or the election itself.
For months now, Trump has been lining up a host of reasons he won’t get the requisite 270 electoral votes in November. There’s the “fake media” charge he created to dodge responsibility for administration failures. There’s the claim that early voting is essentially corrupt. Soon joining the litany of alibis will be the scurrilous charge that the debates were stacked against him.
Chris Matthews, who hosted “Hardball” for 20 years, wrote “Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America.”