Donald Trump is going to have to participate in the GOP primary debates. I think it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to, but like it or not, it’s an open primary, and despite his lead in the polls, he has opponents who have every right to be on the stage and offer their visions for America and to be judged by GOP primary voters.
It’s not like Trump can’t hold his own on the debate stage. In 2016, we saw him repeatedly make mincemeat out of his competitors. He was a dominant force, and regardless of whether you liked his style (and frankly, at the time, I didn’t), it worked.
But now as we head into the 2024 election, Trump — who feels entitled to the nomination and has spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to prevent Ron DeSantis from jumping in the race — seems to be shying away from participating in the debates. Last week, he indicated that he may skip the Republican primary debates scheduled for this summer due to his lead in early polling and ongoing conflicts with both mainstream media outlets and GOP leadership.
Despite this, the Trump campaign insists he wants to debate.
“I think the major point is, he doesn’t mind debating,” campaign spokeswoman Liz Harrington told Newsmax on Saturday. “Everyone knows President Trump will win any debate and the people want to see him.”
Then why threaten to skip?
“They’re choosing the Reagan Library,” Harrington explained. “That would maybe sound great in the past, but it’s run by the publisher of The Washington Post. I mean, why should [Trump] subject himself to something that is so rigged against him? I think that’s the point he’s making.”
The chairman of the Reagan Library is Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post, and he’s held that position at the Reagan Library since 1995, and Donald Trump participated in a GOP primary debate then.
Make no mistake about it, there are absolutely legitimate reasons for Republicans to criticize the presidential debate process. Debates have been overwhelmingly hosted by liberal networks and moderated by liberal anchors, who have undoubtedly used their power to help Democrat candidates, the most notable example being in 2012 when CNN’s Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney after he accurately pointed out that Barack Obama failed to dub the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya a terrorist attack for two weeks. The Obama administration had instead been attempting to push the narrative that the attack was a spontaneous assault in response to an obscure YouTube video.
Last year, the Republican National Committee made the decision to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates due to its history of being unfairly biased. However, this is not a general election debate but rather a GOP primary debate. The RNC has set them up and has established the terms. Trump’s refusal to agree to the primary debate that every other candidate is willing to participate in is problematic and looks like a retreat, not a principled refusal.
It suggests a sense of entitlement to the nomination and a feeling of insult at the mere suggestion that he needs to debate at all. While one can understand Trump’s perspective, the reality is that he is no longer the incumbent and must follow the rules set by a neutral Republican National Committee. Ultimately, he will have to participate in the debates just like every other candidate. Refusing to participate in any debate other Republican candidates are willing to take part in is a bad look that will backfire on him.