The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s debates might be over. And next fall’s are looking iffy.

The crowd at campaign event for former president Donald Trump in Atkinson, N.H., on Tuesday. (Matt Rourke/AP)
5 min

There’s a good chance we’ve seen the last presidential primary debate of the 2024 cycle, now that Thursday’s debate in New Hampshire has been canceled after Nikki Haley announced that she wouldn’t participate if Donald Trump wasn’t there.

If Haley maintains that stance for CNN’s debate on Sunday at New England College in New Hampshire, expect that one to go down as well. Trump is extremely unlikely to alter his practice of skipping the GOP debates — the strategy has worked too well for him, even if it hasn’t been great for democracy or the candidate selection process.

Oh, I guess CNN could make a statement by having Ron DeSantis alone onstage with two empty chairs. (Not even Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson are active candidates anymore. Hey, is that guy Ryan Binkley still around? What’s he doing next weekend?)

Performing well in a debate is hard, which is why debates are necessary. It’s a lot easier to read a script off a teleprompter or shake hands and make small talk at diners in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The GOP primary debates haven’t been perfect — it’s a lot harder for candidates when there are more than, say, four of them onstage. You can argue that the time limits are too strict to get into any detail when discussing serious topics such as entitlement reform, climate change or the U.S. relationship with China. You can argue, fairly, that too many candidates come armed with canned zingers, opposition research, hackneyed slogans or campaign websites to shoehorn into every answer.

But this is one of the few times when American voters get to see candidates thinking on their feet — or, in some cases, failing to think on their feet. Almost everything else on the campaign trail is heavily choreographed by their staff. The debate stage is where the contrasts between the candidates are sharpest.

Assuming that Trump cruises to the nomination — and the Iowa caucuses were a smooth start — the lesson for all future front-runners, at least within the Republican Party, is that you can skip debates with no consequence. GOP primary voters don’t seem to mind.

Who is going to chew out Trump for skipping debates? The Republican National Committee? Trump put Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in the top RNC job; she’s never going to give Trump grief over anything. (If you’re wondering why President Biden isn’t debating long-shot challengers Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson, that’s just not something incumbent presidents do. No doubt much to the relief of a White House staff that lives in terror of Biden ad-libbing in public.)

There’s some irony in the fact that Haley is now the one turning down a debate opportunity; her debate performances are what elevated her to the top tier, or at least to the theoretically-has-a-shot tier.

And with Trump refusing to participate in primary debates, it’s fair to wonder whether the general election debates later this year are going to happen. Last November, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced three presidential debates: Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos, Oct. 1 at Virginia State University in Petersburg and Oct. 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A vice-presidential debate is scheduled for Sept. 25 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

But in 2022, the RNC voted unanimously to withdraw from the commission, and the committee now requires candidates to agree in writing to appear only at party-sanctioned primary and general election debates. Meanwhile, Biden and the Democrats are unlikely to participate in any debate not organized by the commission.

Earlier this month, two Democratic senators close to Biden, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chris Coons of Delaware, speculated to The Hill that perhaps Biden should not participate in a general election debate with Trump, which could give the former president a platform he doesn’t deserve.

Durbin said, “I would think twice about it. … I’ve been physically present at one of [Trump’s] debates with Hillary Clinton, and I watched him do outrageous things and say outrageous things. It’s just an opportunity for him to display his extremism.”

Coons said, “I was in the room for one of the debates in 2020 — Chris Wallace was the moderator. The former president in no way at all respected the rules or the tradition or decorum” of presidential debates. “It was a disaster.”

Neither senator was speaking on behalf of Biden’s campaign, but this sounds like the floating of a trial balloon. Apparently, Biden’s allies aren’t so eager to see him onstage with Trump again.

America has had a presidential debate every cycle since 1976. Democracy is better with debates than without debates. But in this case, a presidential contest with no debates might be relief: Maybe we’ve reached the point where nobody wants to see these two old men onstage shouting at each other anymore.