The Demise of Debate? Trump’s Refusal To Face His GOP Challengers Portends a Problem for Republicans

GOP worries that Trump’s refusal to debate his Republican challengers could give President Biden an excuse to avoid debating his predecessor if they meet again in 2024.

Wikimedia Commons
John Kennedy and Richard Nixon before their first presidential debate in 1960. Wikimedia Commons

President Trump’s decision to abstain from the first Republican primary debate on Wednesday bodes ill for the future of deliberation in a democracy, some scholars say. 

Rather than confronting the Republicans competing for their party’s 2024 nomination face-to-face, Mr. Trump will release a pre-recorded interview with a former Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, at the same time the debate takes place on Fox. The platform on which the interview will appear has not yet been disclosed. 

This could be the emergence of a potentially serious problem in the way Americans elect their presidents. “In the U.S., increasingly, candidates refuse to debate opponents either within their party or from the other party,” an economist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, Vincent Pons, tells the Sun.

An early sign of this demise of debate came after the first presidential debate between Presidents Trump and Biden in September 2020, when a Fox News host, Chris Wallace, struggled to stop Mr. Trump from interrupting Mr. Biden. 

The candidates subsequently pulled out of the second presidential debate and instead hosted competing town halls — which became a duel not between the contenders themselves but a ratings contest, a professor of political communication at the University of Akron, Mitchell McKinney, tells the Sun. 

Further signs came in April of this year, when the Republican National Committee announced it would quit the “biased” Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan platform founded in 1987 to fortify presidential debates as a permanent part of the electoral process. 

These recent lapses in the public forums represent a departure from America’s tradition of political deliberation, which has historically given candidates a chance to showcase their personalities and contend with the opposition — potentially transforming the trajectory of an election.

The first televised general election debate occurred in 1960 between Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. Nixon, who served as vice president under President Eisenhower, entered the debate with a six-point lead over the young senator of Massachusetts. Yet his perceived weakness on the stage made Kennedy a slight favorite in polls the next day. JFK’s campaign capitalized on the momentum all the way through Election Day.  

Presidential debates became a regular occurrence starting in 1980, after Republican Ronald Reagan’s performance against the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, just a week before the general election led to convincing victory on the ballot for the former governor of California. He won 44 of the 50 states.

Some research suggests that presidential debates do not have significant sway on voting patterns. Televised deliberation between party candidates is less impactful than direct political outreach in the period leading up to the general election, by which point many citizens have already decided how they will vote, according to a 2019 working paper co-written by Mr. Pons in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

However, Mr. Pons explains, “debate that takes place during the primaries in the U.S. could have more of an effect” given the limited name recognition many candidates have at this early stage in the election.

Common forums offer voters the opportunity to see how candidates comport themselves and contend with their opponents through the practice of “imminent rebuttal,” Mr. McKinney says.

Mr. Trump’s decision to abstain from the debate on Wednesday, Mr. McKinney predicts, could insulate him from any charges leveled by candidates such as the former governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who is “perhaps trying to out-Trump Trump” through a style of name-bashing and pointed personal attacks. Mr. Trump, Mr. McKinney suggests, “does not want to give Chris Christie that opportunity to build himself up.”

By instead releasing a taped interview with Mr. Carlson, the former president can maintain more control over the narrative to serve his own agenda — a strategy that Mr. Pons suggests will insulate him from meaningful confrontation with his opponents. “Democracy should be about deliberation,” Mr. Pons says. “Public meetings and debates are useful from that point of view.”

“There is no such thing as the perfect debate,” Mr. McKinney says. While some candidates will seize more airtime than others, and though the parlay between moderators and candidates may be rife with disagreement, “that’s the interrogative nature of our open political process.” 

Many senior Republican officials and strategists are expressing concern that Mr. Trump’s absence will undermine viewership on Fox, making it harder for his rivals to close the wide gap in the polls between the frontrunner and his challengers. The Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, tried to convince Mr. Trump to participate, fearing his absence would give Mr. Biden an excuse to avoid debating Mr. Trump if they face off again in 2024.

Mr. McKinney speculates that “it doesn’t matter if Donald Trump is there or not — he will be the focus of the debate.”

The New York Sun

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