John C. Danforth, a Republican, represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for three terms and has served on the Commission on Presidential Debates since 1994.
Like all members of the Commission on Presidential Debates, I have maintained a strict vow of silence regarding my personal feelings about the current presidential campaign. Now, however, that President Trump and some of his ardent supporters have attacked the commission’s integrity, I feel compelled to respond.
The president’s apparent strategy is to challenge the validity of the election should he lose. We saw this strategy initially in his claims that mail-in ballots are the tools for massive election fraud. Now we see it as well in his assertion that the debates have been rigged by the commission to favor former vice president Joe Biden.
The president’s campaign attacked moderator Chris Wallace as “terrible and biased.” Its senior adviser, Steve Cortes, accused the commission of a “scheme to protect their preferred candidate,” and one of Trump’s strongest champions, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), branded the commission “a disgrace.” The claim is that the commission is composed of Democrats and never-Trump Republicans who — through their selection of moderators, their decision to make the town-hall meeting virtual, and (in the latest accusation) through the moderator’s selection of subjects for the final debate — have corruptly tilted the scale.
As for the commission’s makeup, I can only speak for myself. I am a Republican who has carried my party’s banner in six statewide elections and has supported countless Republican candidates over many years. I also have been highly critical of President Trump.
But the conclusion that any commission member would eschew fair play to push a partisan position is, to put it mildly, ironic. The same people who decline to extend the presumption of fairness to members of the commission rightly assert that Amy Coney Barrett will put aside her personal beliefs on the Supreme Court.
But more importantly, the attack is just wrong.
First, all the debate moderators the commission chose are highly professional and experienced. When the selection of the moderators was announced Sept. 2, neither campaign objected. The commission could not have anticipated that more than five weeks later, one of the moderators, Steve Scully — having been attacked by President Trump and his supporters — would reach out to a Trump critic seeking advice or that Scully would not own up to having done so. The commission relied on what had been Scully’s sterling reputation for professionalism.
The president and his supporters have charged that the commission’s purpose in deciding to conduct the town-hall debate with the candidates in remote locations was made to favor Biden. This is nonsense. (Speaking again for myself, had I wanted to help the Biden campaign, the last thing on my mind would have been to restrain the technique President Trump exhibited in the first debate.)
In fact, the commission’s decision that the town-hall debate would be virtual was made in a phone meeting where — after the president’s covid-19 diagnosis — the sole concern was the health of citizen participants and the commission’s 60-member production staff. We believed that the best way to mitigate this concern would be for the candidates to participate remotely. The result would not be ideal, but it would be similar to the countless remote meetings to which Americans have become accustomed. Our decision was endorsed by the Cleveland Clinic, the commission’s medical adviser.
It’s also nonsense to suggest that the commission has allowed the Biden campaign to steer the final debate away from foreign policy. As the Trump campaign knows, subject matter for the debates is outside the commission’s province and is chosen solely by the moderators.
Some have suggested that the Commission on Presidential Debates disband, and that in future campaigns the candidates simply negotiate the debate rules among themselves.
Good luck with that.
The first question would be, who would be parties to the negotiations and debates in addition to Democratic and Republican candidates? The Libertarians? The Green Party? Others? Then would follow other contentious matters: the number, scheduling and duration of debates, their format, locations and moderators. Etc., etc., etc. It is unimaginable that candidates left to themselves would successfully negotiate these conditions. If the commission disbands, another intermediary will have to replace it.
It is always fair to question any organization’s decisions, and the Commission on Presidential Debates is not above criticism. Some have suggested we should have postponed the town-hall debate until we were certain the president couldn’t spread the disease. Some have said we should have done better at communicating with the two campaigns. But there’s an enormous difference between criticizing good-faith efforts and accusing the commission of corrupt favoritism. The first is helpful for improving our work. The second destroys public confidence in the most basic treasure of democracy, the conduct of fair elections. The second paves the way to violence in the streets.
It is not the honor of the commission that is at stake here. What is at stake is Americans’ belief in the fairness of our presidential debates and, in turn, the presidential election. When that faith is undermined, the damage to our country is incalculable.