Along with the debate deal, Trump and Biden sideline a storied campaign enterprise

President Biden and Donald J. Trump moving forward with two presidential debates — and sidelining the Commission on Presidential Debates — is a debilitating and fatal blow to an institution that was once a key arbiter of presidential politics.

But the roots of the commission’s decline go back at least a decade and came to a head in 2020, when Mr. Trump and Mr. The commission struggled to hold a debate with Biden.

Mr. Mr. Trump The candidates’ first meeting that year was caustic and raucous, with shouting at Biden and the moderator. “I’m biased: I’ve never experienced anything like it,” said moderator, Chris Wallace.

As it later turned out, Mr Trump had a Covid diagnosis just days before the event, leading to strong objections to the commission from the Biden campaign. A second debate between Mr. Trump and Mr. Canceled by Trump. In the third debate, the commission gave the referee a mute button to cut off a candidate who broke the rules.

But even before that, commission politics is on thin ice. Mr. Anita Dunn, a longtime senior adviser to Biden, helped write the 2015 report, which called for the debates to be updated for the modern media environment. The nonpartisan commission, created in 1987 by the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, is biased toward Democrats. Trump accused. The Republican National Committee announced it would no longer work with the commission in 2022.

“Campaigns always want to take the debates back,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism in Boston who has written several books about presidential debates. Back to the future.

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Republican Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who helped create the commission and is now its co-chair, said in an interview that he was dismayed at the results of campaigns bypassing the organization — and skeptical of how it might work.

“I’m going to be a fly on the wall when the campaigns start coming together to say the details of this,” he said. “Who is sitting where, who is refereeing, who is there, where are these people. We were created to do all these things.

In fact, the commission was created to insert a bipartisan and empowered negotiator into the planning, including moderator elections, how many guests each campaign can bring into the studio, and the height of the lecterns behind which candidates stand.

It took over from the League of Women Voters, which had overseen the debates for a decade and was criticized for its lack of success in dealing favorably with the demands of campaigners. In 1984, Republican President Ronald Reagan and his Democratic rival, Walter F. Mondale’s campaigns vetoed the names of 100 journalists nominated as panel questioners.

“The problem was that the league didn’t have much leverage against the issue, so when it came to the details of whether or not there would be a live audience, the campaigns would hit them hard,” Schroeder said.

Richard M. Nixon and John F. The commission set aside practices that had evolved from televised presidential debates since 1960 between the Kennedys. Panels of questioners, which made it too difficult to focus on a topic or allowed for follow-up, were replaced by a moderator. The commission decided who could attend and where the debates could be held, and ensured that they would be broadcast on all major networks.

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The venues, dates and focus of the debate – whether they would be on foreign policy or domestic issues – were announced in advance with the idea of ​​making it difficult for propaganda to influence the rules of the game.

“I’m a fan of the commission,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. “They have a consistent record of good work. It’s unfortunate if it’s going back to campaigns; And strategic calculations are taking place and will undermine the interests of the American public as a whole.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden quickly agreed on dates and networks to sponsor the debates, but difficult negotiations lie ahead. Mr. Biden prefers debates without an audience and with microphones that automatically cut off when a speaker exceeds their allotted time. It is unclear whether Mr Trump agreed to those terms.

Also unresolved is whether the discussion will be held exclusively on the host network or shared with other broadcasters and streamers. ABC, one of the sponsors, said it would allow other networks to show the debates; CNN, at least initially, said it couldn’t.

For the audience, there will be no apparent differences between a commission-organized debate and a debate negotiated by candidates and networks.

“A debate is a live show. It doesn’t have a script. Because, as history has shown us over and over again, debates have a mind of their own and they take on a life of their own,” Mr. Schroeder said.

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