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Port: There are legitimate arguments to be made against the Commission on Presidential Debates

The commission was founded by America's two major political parties to collude against independent and third-party candidates. As an institution, it's hardly a paragon of democratic virtue.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak at their first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Sept. 26, 2016.
Mike Segar / Reuters
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MINOT, N.D. — One of the side effects of the GOP's continued embrace of disgraced former President Donald Trump is that the party's arguments are perceived through the lens of the orange-tinted man-baby's paranoia and ponderous self-regard.

So it is with the Republican National Committee's decision to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates .

“This is a big deal. Another blow to our democracy," CNN's John Avalon argued . "It also appears to be a temper tantrum thrown at Donald Trump's request, complaining that the commission is biased. It's also a virtual guarantee that America will retreat further into its partisan echo chamber, which is the last thing we need.”

There's no question that part of the RNC's motivation is Trump — being a Republican today means changing Trump's diaper — but let's not pretend as though the commission was some pure instrument of democracy.

The commission's formation was rooted in collusion between Republicans and Democrats. From 1976 to 1984, debates were organized by the League of Women Voters.

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America's two major political parties didn't like the arrangement.

"The LWV had irritated the two parties by insisting on the presence of independent John Anderson in a 1980 debate and by refusing to knuckle under to the demands of major-party nominees — demands that often ran to a dozen pages or more," John Fund reports in National Review . "In 1984, the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns rejected 80 names the LWV had put forward as potential moderators."

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I'm just not seeing a constituency of North Dakota voters that Mund could appeal to that's large enough to lead her to victory. But, again, that's assuming that she's running to win, and not as a way to keep her celebrity alive post-Miss America.

In 1987, the commission was formed, and during the 1988 cycle the League of Women Voters gave up, withdrawing the sponsorship of the presidential debates.

The campaigns for George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis drew up a "memorandum of understanding" agreeing on who could participate in the debates, who could ask questions, and even the height of the lecterns.

In bowing out, the League said , "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."

The commission has been successful in locking out independent and third-party candidates ever since. Only Ross Perot, in 1992, was allowed to join, but the commission originally opposed him. He was included at the insistence of Bush and Bill Clinton campaigns.

But even given the unseemly origins of the commission, and setting aside Trump's mewling, the RNC has some legitimate gripes.

In 2020, C-SPAN's Steve Scully was backed by the commission as moderator of a debate, despite having previously interned for Joe Biden, and despite lying about seeking the advice of a Trump critic on Twitter .

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Many of the RNC's demands, laid out in a letter sent to the commission last year, aren't unreasonable. They want term limits for commission board members, a prohibition on board members criticizing the candidates, disqualifications for proposed moderators who have conflicts of interest with the candidates, and at least one debate before early voting begins in any state.

"In 2020, more than half the states had begun early voting before Biden and Trump met for their first debate," Fund reports . "Overseas and military voting had already begun in all 50 states."

Are these things really so much to ask?

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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