Any Republican who wants to run for president will be required to sign a pledge that they will only appear in party-sanctioned primary and general election debates after the Republican National Committee voted unanimously Thursday to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Republicans have for years complained that the nonprofit and self-described nonpartisan debate commission has been biased towards Democrats. Now the RNC has followed through on threats to pull Republican candidates out of the debate process. At a meeting in Tennessee, party leadership passed a resolution that reads in part: "Any presidential primary candidate who does not agree in writing, or who participates in any debate that is not a sanctioned debate, shall not be eligible to participate in any further sanctioned debates.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that the RNC will form a working group to sanction debates based on input from presidential campaigns on the timing, frequency, format, media outlet, candidate qualifications, and whatever is in the "best interest of the Republican Party," among other considerations.
“Debates are an important part of the democratic process, and the RNC is committed to free and fair debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates is biased and has refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage," RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement.
"Today, the RNC voted to withdraw from the biased CPD, and we are going to find newer, better debate platforms to ensure that future nominees are not forced to go through the biased CPD in order to make their case to the American people,” she added.
The RNC's decision to withdraw comes after former President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign made several complaints about the debate process and the moderators selected by the CPD in the last election.
During the first debate between Trump and Joe Biden, for instance, moderator Chris Wallace singled out Trump with a question asking him to condemn "white supremacists and right-wing militia," even though Trump had already done so publicly. The former Fox News host did not ask Biden about Antifa and did not push back when Biden later claimed during the debate that the radical anarchist group "is an idea, not an organization."
The Trump campaign also lodged complaints about the CPD's decision to switch the second debate to a virtual format because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and about the planned moderator, then-CSPAN anchor Steve Scully, because he had once interned in Biden's senate office as a college student. The second debate was ultimately canceled because an agreement on the format could not be reached.
Before the third 2020 debate, Trump's team loudly objected to the exclusion of foreign policy as a topic, alleging that the topics selected by moderator Kristen Welker were picked so that Trump could not attack Biden over his son Hunter Biden's business dealings in foreign countries.
But Republican and conservative complaints about presidential debates moderated by liberal-leaning journalists existed well before Trump. The second debate between then-candidate Mitt Romney and former President Barack Obama in 2012 became controversial after CNN moderator Candy Crowley came to Obama's defense after Romney claimed he had hesitated to call the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi an act of terror. At one point, it appeared as if Romney was debating Crowley and Obama at the same time. The late conservative talk radio legend Rush Limbaugh called the episode "an act of journalistic terror."
The RNC's statement made several accusations of bias against the CPD, which was formed in 1987 and sponsors general election debates between the major candidates for president and vice president every four years.
Republicans charged that the CPD showed bias by:
- Waiting until 26 states had begun early voting before hosting the first presidential debate in 2020.
- Making unilateral changes to previously agreed-upon debate formats and conditions, in some cases without even notifying the candidates.
- Selecting a moderator in 2020 who had once worked for Joe Biden.
- Failing to maintain the organization’s strict nonpartisanship, with a majority of its Board Members publicly disparaging the Republican-nominee.
In response to the RNC's announcement, Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison accused Republicans gross moral corruption.
"Typical CYA… you didn’t pass a party platform… your leader praises Putin… your members hang out at cocaine orgies… actively trying to destroy Medicare, ACA & Social Security… rampant voter suppression ... can fully understand why you don’t want a debate," Harrison tweeted.
The RNC's statement emphasized, "we are not walking away from debates. We are walking away from the CPD."