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The Morning Dispatch: RNC Threatens to Boycott Future Presidential Debates
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The Morning Dispatch: RNC Threatens to Boycott Future Presidential Debates

Republicans accuse the bipartisan organization that oversees the quadrennial debates of political bias against their nominees.

Happy Friday! If there was going to be a YouTube video to surpass 10 billion views, we’re glad it’s something as profound and enriching as “Baby Shark.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • 2021 was the sixth-warmest year on record, according to new data released Thursday by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With global temperatures 1.51℉ above the 20th-century average, 2021 was cooler only than 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020.

  • President Biden appeared to concede on Thursday that Senate Democrats will not be able to advance the party’s two voting bills—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—after Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin reiterated yet again their opposition to abolishing the legislative filibuster.

  • The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandate for businesses that employ at least 100 people, with a majority of justices ruling that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is empowered to set “workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures.” In a statement, President Biden expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s ruling and said he will continue to “advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy” by implementing vaccine mandates. The justices did, however, determine in a 5-4 ruling that the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding is lawful. 

  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said yesterday that diplomatic talks over Ukraine had hit a “dead end” because the United States and its allies are “telling [him] no” on Russia’s primary demands and only offering to negotiate on “secondary” issues. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Thursday that “the threat of military invasion is high,” as the U.S. intelligence community has determined Russia is “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for an invasion.”

  • Sen. Ted Cruz’s legislation that would quickly reimpose sanctions on the Russia-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline opposed by Ukraine failed to advance Thursday after 44 Democrats and one Republican voted against it. The Biden administration had lobbied against the bill in recent days, arguing it would “remove leverage” and “undermine” its efforts to deter a Russian re-invasion of Ukraine.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday the Producer Price Index—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging their customers—increased at its slowest pace since November 2020 last month, but is still up a near-record 9.7 percent year-over-year. 

  • Despite President Biden saying in November that migrant families separated at the border during the Trump years and suing the government “deserve some kind of compensation,” the Justice Department argued in federal court this week the plaintiffs’ cases should be dismissed because illegal immigrants cannot “challenge the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration laws.” The Wall Street Journal reported in October that the government was considering up to $450,000 settlement payments per person affected by the Trump administration policy.

  • The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the Omicron variant accounted for 97 percent to 99 percent of COVID-19 infections confirmed in the United States between January 2 and January 8. The U.S. is now averaging about 800,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections per day—as well as about 1,700 deaths attributed to the disease—but there are early signs the Omicron wave is nearing its peak. President Biden announced yesterday that hundreds of military personnel will be deployed next week to assist overwhelmed hospitals in six states, and that he had directed his administration to double its rapid COVID-19 test order to 1 billion.

  • The January 6 Select Committee issued subpoenas to four social media companies on Thursday, demanding information from Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), Reddit, and Twitter regarding the various platforms’ alleged hosting of election misinformation and violent extremist content.

  • A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report published yesterday found college enrollment has declined by 5.1 percent (approximately 940,000 students) from Fall 2019 to Fall 2021.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims increased by 23,000 week-over-week to 230,000 last week, but remain near record lows.

RNC Threatens to Pull the Plug on Presidential Debates

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)

During the 2020 campaign, one of the oddest targets against which then-President Trump turned his wrath was the Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization responsible for producing the televised specials that are typically the only mano-a-mano candidate confrontations of a given election cycle. 

The commission—which for years has operated more or less out of the public eye—has hosted the presidential and vice presidential general election debates since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, and its board of directors is stuffed with former high-powered officials of both major parties. Trump’s objection was that he believed most of the formerly high-powered officials couldn’t stand him in particular.

“The problem is that the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates is stacked with Trump Haters and Never Trumpers,” he tweeted in late 2019, nearly a year before the first debate was set to take place. “As president, the debates are up to me, and there are many options, including doing them directly and avoiding the nasty politics of this very biased Commission.”

Trump ended up going through with the debates (although the second was canceled after he contracted COVID). Now, however, the Republican Party is moving past mere complaints. On Thursday, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel sent a letter to the co-chairs of the CPD—first reported by The New York Times—threatening to bar future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates barring significant changes to the organization.

“The RNC has shared our concerns with the CPD in good faith, carefully documenting why the party and its voters have lost faith in your organization, and we have proposed commonsense reforms that would restore trust in the debates process,” McDaniel wrote. “Unfortunately, neither the tone nor substance of your latest response inspires confidence that the CPD will meaningfully address the serious issues which the RNC has raised.”

Trump’s complaints about the CPD were rooted in its supposed personal animosity against him, and the RNC letter as well complained about “a majority of [CPD’s] Board Members publicly disparaging the Republican nominee” during the last cycle. But McDaniel’s other gripes were more procedural, as she demanded that CPD “adopt term limits for its Board of Directors,” “commit to holding at least one debate before the start of early voting,” and establish several new layers of transparency, including by prohibiting CPD staff from publicly supporting or opposing candidates and disqualifying anyone with “personal, professional, or partisan” conflicts of interest from moderating debates.

“These proposals are common sense solutions for an organization whose unique, nonpartisan role in American elections requires it to stand above the political fray,” McDaniel went on. “Indeed, we believe that most neutral observers would be shocked to learn that these overdue reforms are not already CPD policy.”

The CPD responded quickly. “The CPD deals directly with candidates for President and Vice President who qualify for participation in the CPD’s general election debates,” the organization said in a statement provided to The Dispatch. “The CPD’s plans for 2024 will be based on fairness, neutrality, and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues.”

It’s not hard to see where the CPD is coming from: The organization sees an above-the-fray posture as key to its bipartisan credibility, a posture that precludes folding to a party’s ultimatums. It’s also not hard to see why they’d scoff at claims about their partisanship; bipartisanship is sewn into the fabric of the organization, which was co-founded in 1987 by the RNC and DNC chairs at the time, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk. But Fahrenkopf, 82, is still the CPD’s Republican co-chair, and McDaniel would likely argue—correctly—that he’s not representative of today’s GOP, which Trump commandeered in large part by denigrating its old guard.

Regardless of the merits of the complaint, it’s pretty clear who’s holding more of the cards here. The CPD’s role in the process is based entirely on inertia; it organizes the debates because it’s the entity that has organized them for years. But it’s not like people would still tune in to watch the Democratic nominee monologue at an empty podium.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Republican Party would decide abandoning the debates would look uncomfortably like running away from a fight. That’s the line Democrats will probably take, anyway. “After years of having their toxic policies exposed on the national stage, the RNC has decided they would rather hide their ideas and candidates from voters,” DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison said yesterday. “Regardless of the RNC’s tantrum, voters can count on hearing from President Biden and Vice President Harris, who are proud of their records.”

Sen. Mitt Romney—the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee and McDaniels’ uncle—told reporters yesterday the RNC would be “nuts” to go through with the plan. “The American people want to see candidates for president debating issues of consequence to them,” he said. “It provides a service to the country and to the people, to hear the prospective candidates of the two major parties duke it out.”

What would a CPD-less election look like? Before the CPD era, the debates had been administered for several cycles by the League of Women Voters, but it gave up the task in exasperation in 1988, accusing the two parties of attempting to micromanage the rules of engagement. 

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and honest answers to tough questions,” the League said then in a statement. “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding, and self-serving demands.” The CPD was born out of the two parties’ desire to hash out the rules of engagement on their own without recourse to any pesky idealistic third party; it’s a sign of the times that even that arrangement is now grinding gears at party headquarters.

If the RNC follows through on its threat—it’s set to be voted on in a party meeting next month—it’s possible the eventual nominees’ campaigns would negotiate the terms of debate amongst themselves in 2024. It’s also possible the nominees would simply not debate in person at all. That, too, would be a sign of the times.

Worth Your Time

  • Josh Barro’s first full Very Serious newsletter outlines his view on what Democratic leaders are doing wrong in the lead up to the 2022 midterm elections. “Ever since Donald Trump was first nominated, Democrats have become enamored of the mostly wrong idea that they can win political contests through disqualification,” he writes. “Because Republicans are so bad—so racist, so erratic, so fascist, whatever—voters can be told they are not even an acceptable option and therefore they must vote Democratic, whatever views they hold on any other issues; whatever the actual performance record of Democratic officeholders; even if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. … It’s an appealing message for partisans because in theory it allows you to pick up more voters without adjusting your policy agenda at all. But especially without Trump on the ballot, this strategy is a mirage.”

  • In Commentary, John Podhoretz memorializes the magazine’s most prolific contributor in its 76-year history, Terry Teachout, who died yesterday at the age of 65. “The loss to his loved ones, the loss to the American theatre he both championed as a critic and mastered as a playwright, and the loss to the broader American culture he knew more fully than anyone else in our time cannot be overstated,” Podhoretz writes. “Terry possessed an extraordinary talent, all the more extraordinary because his life’s work was a defense of the value, meaning, and profundity of ordinariness. A child of small-town Missouri, he was someone who made a study of every topic that interested him and, with his passion for completeness, achieved a greater level of expertise in matters of high and popular culture than just about anyone in America.”

  • For GQ, Daniel Riley profiled Shohei Ohtani, the two-way Los Angeles Angels phenom who just wrapped up one of the most unique seasons in baseball history. “It has been some time since a new baseball player has become a household name,” he writes. “But it was palpable all last year that we were witnessing someone who might reframe the possibilities, for generations to come, for what any one individual player could do in the game.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the second edition of Stirewaltisms, Chris opines on Democrats’ perilous political position before pivoting to podcasts, polls, and 2024 punditry. “On the defining issue for his term so far, Biden is losing the confidence of the public, which means he is losing the respect of his rivals for power inside the party,” he writes. “Vice President Kamala Harris won’t be the only one sniping at Biden from behind the draperies as 2024 draws nearer.”

  • New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dropped by The Remnant on Thursday for a discussion about his latest essay. Is the United States actually on the cusp of a new civil war? Why is Biden a less effective president than Bill Clinton? Can a case be made for mandatory voting? And is there anything worthwhile about Don’t Look Up?

  • In the months before Joe Biden became president, we published a series of pieces from expert analysts breaking down his policy agenda, from the courts to foreign policy to education to federal spending. Now we’re updating the series, with the same authors checking in on Biden’s progress a year into his term. First up: Abby McCloskey grades how Biden has managed with his family policy agenda.

Let Us Know

Have presidential debates outlived their usefulness, or do you believe they still serve an important purpose?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).