Column: Biden-Trump debate nears amid hopes to avoid another Dumpster fire

Debate stage with Donald Trump on the left and Joe Biden on the right, each behind a podium
President Biden and former President Trump are planning two faceoffs, but the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates will schedule more if the first proves a disaster. (Morry Gash / Pool photo via Getty Images)

In a little over a week, Frank Fahrenkopf will be just another member of the TV audience watching as Joe Biden and Donald Trump tangle in this year's first presidential debate.

He's not happy about that.

In 1987, Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, helped found the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized and overseen more than three decades' worth of presidential and vice presidential faceoffs.

This year, the Biden and Trump campaigns struck out on their own and arranged for two debates, the first — June 27 — offering citizens an unusual addition to the usual summer fun and frivolity.

The result remains to be seen.

"The two campaigns have decided to take over what really belongs to the American people," said Fahrenkopf, who noted the commission had done a fine job on voters' behalf before Biden and Trump, partnering with ratings- and prestige-minded TV networks, decided to freelance and come up with their own debate schedule and format.

All well and good. Debating is better than not debating.

But speaking this week from his summer home in Nantucket, Mass., Fahrenkopf expressed reservations about the agreed-upon terms — including how a mute-button will be applied — and the lack of direct voter participation in the two scheduled Biden-Trump throw downs.

His inclination is to wait and see. If the initial installment turns into another Dumpster-fire-atop-a-dung-heap, like the first presidential debate in 2020, the commission is ready to step in with a schedule of three sessions planned for the fall, along with a vice presidential debate.

"They may say no, and that's their prerogative," Fahrenkopf said of the president and his would-be successor.

But the offer is out there.

Read more: CNN is sharing its presidential debate with rivals. But there are strings attached

The commission was founded nearly 40 years ago by Democrats and Republicans seeking to end the political brinkmanship and tiresome debate over debates that had become a regular part of presidential campaigning.

"It was back-and-forth" and always in doubt whether candidates would share a stage, said Fahrenkopf, who rose through the ranks of Nevada politics before becoming national GOP chairman under President Reagan.

The commission has faced plenty of criticism over the decades, often from candidates who stumbled under the bright lights and wanted someone to blame. But after several election cycles with no debates, face-to-face meetings between the leading candidates have become a staple of the fall campaign and something voters have come to rely upon. Tens of millions tune in.

Biden and Trump had their own gripes with the commission and the 2020 debates, which took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden wasn't happy that Trump and his entourage shucked their masks after entering the debate hall. ("What the hell was I gonna do?" Fahrenkopf asked, not unreasonably.) Trump had all manner of grievances, including the Washington-heavy makeup of the commission.

But those complaints aside, the two had other motives for striking a side deal this time and spurning the commission and its fall schedule.

Biden was eager to dispel suggestions his campaign was stuck in the doldrums, while Trump was itching to debate early and often a rival he considers in steep mental and physical decline.

Frank Fahrenkopf and Kenneth Wollack stand on a presidential debate stage with patriotic decor and a bright blue background
Frank Fahrenkopf, at left on a 2020 debate stage, is disappointed the presumed Republican and Democratic nominees are setting their own terms for two debates this year, going around the nonpartisan commission he co-chairs. (Chip Somodevilla / Associated Press)

Fahrenkopf, diplomatically, wouldn't criticize terms of the June 27 debate laid out by host CNN and accepted by the two candidates. (A second debate is scheduled for Sept. 10 on ABC, and CBS plans a meeting of vice presidential candidates on a date to be determined. The participation of independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his running mate remains up in the air.)

Fahrenkopf did question how the mute button will function. In 2020, after Trump blustered and repeatedly talked over Biden during their first debate — “Will you shut up, man?” Biden snapped at one point — the commission instituted a rule that each candidate would get two minutes without interruption at the start of each 15-minute issue segment. Both men abided by the rule.

By contrast, microphones will be muted throughout the entire CNN debate, except when a candidate is given his turn to speak.

"Our view is it's supposed to be a debate," Fahrenkopf said. "It's not just the answers [candidates are] giving with regard to issues that are important to voters. ... People that are watching on television [also] get a perception about the character of a candidate. How he or she conducts themselves, whether they obey the rules. Whether they're polite."

Fahrenkopf said his biggest disappointment with the arrangement Biden and Trump worked out is the absence of a town-hall format, in which voters in the studio audience are given a chance to directly question the candidates. It was, he said, one of the commission's most popular innovations.

Read more: Column: Trump and Biden both think they can land a knockout in the debates. They can't both be right

Sooner or later, Fahrenkopf and his nine fellow commissioners will have to decide whether to pull the plug on four planned debates and disappoint the schools — Texas State University, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Virginia State University and the University of Utah — set to play host.

"There was such an involvement of students who were participating" in previous debates, Fahrenkopf said. "Students who were doing special classes on civics and so forth. That's all gone and missing."

But even if it's two-and-done for Biden and Trump, Fahrenkopf doesn't see the demise of the debate commission just because the candidates chose to snub its recommendations and look out for their own best interests.

"We'll look down the road to 2028," he said. "We've been around a long time. So we must be doing something right."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.