presidential debates

Trump Has No Power to Block a Change in the Debate Rules

You can’t always get what you want. Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

After Donald Trump performed the oratorical equivalent of a murder-suicide at Tuesday’s presidential debate — putting Joe Biden’s talking points to death by a thousand interruptions, while snuffing out his own hopes of winning over swing voters in the process — the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that it would be tinkering with the format of the remaining contests. Specifically, the CPD declared Wednesday that “additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

Among the ideas under consideration: (1) Eliminating the “open discussion” portion of the debate, in which tight time limits are suspended to allow the candidates a free-form back-and-forth, (2) penalizing the interrupting candidate by deducting their allotted time for future answers, and (3) empowering moderators to cut candidates’ mics when they egregiously flout their time limits.

The Trump campaign has resisted these changes. In fact, they went so far as to declare the CPD a partisan organization that’s biased against the president. Trump explained his campaign’s position succinctly Thursday afternoon, tweeting, “Why would I allow the Debate Commission to change the rules for the second and third Debates when I easily won last time?”

Of course, all available polling data indicates that Trump did not in fact benefit from his performance Tuesday night. Given that reality, it is plausible that stricter rules against interruption would redound to his benefit at future debates, in the same way that limitations on candy consumption can spare a toddler a stomachache, no matter how much they might protest such affronts to their personal freedom.

Nevertheless, Trump and the Republican National Committee have dug in their heels. “I don’t think you should be changing the rules that they have agreed to,” RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel said Thursday, “and I do not think this commission has the right to just arbitrarily change rules without talking to both candidates and getting agreement and input from both sides.”

These complaints have fueled speculation that Trump might boycott the remaining debates, should the CPD adjust the rules in any way. But to the extent that the Trump campaign is trying to implicitly convey such a threat, they’re bluffing.

As the candidate polling eight points behind, Trump can’t afford to pass up any opportunity to change the race’s trajectory — much less, to cede his opponent a free infomercial, broadcast across all major networks in primetime. Which is what boycotting the second debate would amount to. The showdown in Miami on October 15 is structured as a town-hall event, in which the candidates will take questions from voters. If Trump does not show, the evening will become a de facto Joe Biden campaign event, one where the Democratic nominee will have 90 minutes of free airtime to extend to voters his patented empathy, and lambast Trump’s cowardly refusal to defend his record before the American people.

The president can whine all he wants. Few question his mastery of that pastime. But he cannot stop the CPD from trying to help him help himself, by erecting stronger barriers against anarchic dickery in his future arguments with the Democratic nominee.

Trump Has No Power to Block a Change in the Debate Rules