With President Donald Trump and Democratic Challenger Joe Biden meeting today in the final presidential debate, it’s a good time to take stock of the Commission of Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation that has outlived its usefulness.
The commission was in the news again this year because of the cancellation of last week’s second presidential debate.
Instead, American voters were treated to two largely useless simultaneous town halls on different networks. The audience dropped off by two-thirds.
For voters here in Louisiana, the highhandedness of the debate commission is old news.
In 2007, the wounded city of New Orleans put in a bid to host one of the 2008 presidential debates.
The debate commission had a wonderful opportunity to help the city recover from Hurricane Katrina and show tourists that New Orleans had not lost its gift for staging big events.
The city’s bid had broad backing. Even The New York Times weighed in on its editorial page in support of the city’s quest.
But in the end, the commission passed over New Orleans, picking St. Louis; Nashville; Hempstead, New York; and Oxford, Mississippi; as the sites for its three presidential and one vice presidential debate.
The commission’s reasons were flimsy.
The corporation told the city it had not sufficiently recovered from Hurricane Katrina, even though New Orleans had already begun to accommodate large conventions.
But New Orleans was surely more able to handle a big event than Oxford, which had fewer than 1,000 hotel rooms. While the academic institutions in New Orleans often associated with debate sites had been hit hard by the storms of 2005, they were very much alive and kicking.
Anne Milling, who had been a founder of Women of the Storm and a key supporter of the city’s bid, said Paul Kirk Jr., the commission’s Democratic leader, told her New Orleans was “not ready” to host the event, even though the commission had made the city one of 16 finalists.
Kirk later denied saying that.
The commission has overseen presidential debates since 1987, but this has been a year of blunders: The loss of control in the first debate, C-SPAN’s suspension of moderator Steve Scully for lying about a tweet, the cancellation of the second presidential debate.
American democracy worked fine without a debate commission. In races from Kennedy-Nixon to Reagan-Mondale, the parties and campaigns managed to sort out a debate schedule.
If 2020 marks the last gasp for the debate commission, we in Louisiana won’t be sorry.