Trump, Biden debate will face obstacles in bypassing commission, co-chair predicts

Two presidential debates have been announced — without the involvement of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) — putting the CPD in a rare and potentially perilous void of irrelevance.

Commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, a veteran of 33 presidential and vice presidential clashes, isn’t convinced President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will go through with debates announced for June 27 on CNN and Sept. 10 on ABC. CBS News has proposed a vice presidential debate that Kamala Harris has accepted. Trump, who does not yet have a running mate, has not accepted this debate yet.

“There are a lot of things that have to be worked out,” Fahrenkopf told CBS News on this week’s episode of “The Takeout.” “There’s a lot of questions…that aren’t to my knowledge worked out yet. That could prevent it from happening.”

Fahrenkopf, who, outside of the Biden and Trump campaigns, is possibly the most interested observer of the debate schedule and machinations, listed some unresolved issues: drug tests (Trump said he will “demand” one of Biden); whether the candidates will be seated at a table or standing behind podiums; opening statements; length of response time/rebuttal; and commercial breaks (commission-sponsored debates were 90 uninterrupted minutes).

Eager to share debate commission history, Fahrenkopf said disputes over issues like these came close to paralyzing debates before the commission was formed in 1987.

“That’s the reason that we were created,” Fahrenkopf said. “The history of two campaigns sitting down and arguing and arguing and arguing. Remember — we went 16 years without debates. Little things can get in the way. I don’t know whether that’s as true here, but there are a lot of things.”

The first televised presidential debate took place in 1960 at the Chicago studio of CBS News station WBBM and was moderated by CBS News anchor Howard K. Smith, along with a panel that included journalists from ABC and NBC News. It was a ratings sensation and campaign lore was that GOP nominee and then-Vice President Richard Nixon lost ground to the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson declined to debate in 1964. Stung by his experience in 1960, Nixon refused to debate in 1968 and 1972. In 1976, President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after he resigned, agreed to debate Democratic nominee, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. The League of Women Voters sponsored debates that year and through 1984 when, following two academic studies recommending a non-partisan commission to oversee debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed. 

Fahrenkopf, formerly chairman of the Republican National Committee, was an original founder, along with then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk.

Though it’s now landed in a new and uncomfortable political wilderness, Fahrenkopf said the commission is not dead — at least not yet.

“Absolutely not,” Fahrenkopf said. “We are right now organizing, completing our planning and so forth. We have to wait to see what happens. My gut tells me that we may have a future. We better stick around.”

Fahrenkopf knows the commission is viewed as an anachronism and has absorbed withering criticism from both Trump — who accused the commission of being biased against Republicans — and close advisers to Mr. Biden who view commission procedures as outmoded and fussy.

But Fahrenkopf withdrew his harshest criticism of top White House communications adviser Anita Dunn, when he told Politico’s Deep Dive podcast that Dunn “hates” the commission and was the reason Mr. Biden’s team went around it to negotiate with Trump’s campaign.

“Yeah, maybe I spoke a little too roughly,” Fahrenkopf told CBS News. “She doesn’t like us. Let’s say that maybe I was a little too strong.”

He conceded the commission’s days could be numbered.

“We’re hoping that we’re going to know in the next few weeks whether things are really going to happen or not,” Fahrenkopf said.

Asked if the July 4th weekend could be a deadline for the commission to know whether it has a future in this election, Fahrenkopf said yes.

“If there’s no commitment to the commission by July 4th, then probably this isn’t going to happen.”

Confronting that reality in ways he never has before, Fahrenkopf said something would be lost if debates fell to individual TV networks with smaller audiences. Commission debates have traditionally been carried by all networks without commercial breaks or glaring promotional overlays and constant haggling over format, moderators, locations and myriad other issues. This year, the cable and broadcast networks hosting the debates, CNN and ABC, have offered to allow all networks to simulcast the debates.

“I think it has become part of the tradition of how we elect the people who lead our country as president and vice president,” Fahrenkopf said of commission debates. “I would hate to see this also disappear.”

Fahrenkopf was asked if he was rooting for the announced debates to fall apart.

“No, that’s not true. I can’t say that.”

Fahrenkopf added, “If they’re able to succeed with these two debates that they’re planning, if they’re done right (and) they educate the American people, I will give them a salute. The only reason we exist is to make sure debates take place.

However, he added, “If they crash and burn, we’ll still be there and hopefully be able to fill what’s empty.”

Executive producer: Arden Farhi

Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson

CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin 
Show email:
Twitter: @TakeoutPodcast
Instagram: @TakeoutPodcast

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