Should Reince Priebus go further in challenging the debate structure?

Leading Conservatives Attend 40th Annual CPACOn Monday, August 5, 2013, Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) Reince Priebus took to the airwaves to defend his threat to shut CNN and NBC out of the 2016 GOP debates if the two networks continue with plans to air programming on Hillary Clinton.

On Bloomberg TV’s Street Smart, Priebus proclaimed:

They’re going to assert what they want to do, and we’re going to assert what we want to do,” he said. “I just want their presidents and their chairman to know that if they want to move forward and spend millions of dollars promoting one particular candidate before the 2016 election, then we’re going to do what we want to do, and we’re just going to shut them out of our debates.{1}

Republicans around the country were elated.  We were confused but elated.  We didn’t know this could be done.  We thought that national Republican party had long ago ceded to all of the dictates of the debates put forth by the major networks. We thought the Republicans had no muscle in the negotiations, based on the fact that these networks reach the widest possible audience. We thought that we were forever going to be subjected to their liberal moderators, selected by the liberal Commission on Presidential Debates, to ask liberal questions that they deem important to voters to trap Republican candidates.  We had no idea there was another way.  Most of us, of a certain age, have never seen the RNC flex a muscle before.

Priebus’s comments reminded many Republicans of one of the few times any national Republican candidate balked at the status quo of how debates were conducted: Gingrich’s swat of John King in the 2011 Republican primary.  For those that don’t remember it, ABC News ran an interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife, in which she made the allegation that Newt suggested she accept his affair as part of their marriage.{2}  King opened the CNN debate with a question about this, and Gingrich slapped back, stating that he had offered ABC News several witnesses to refute the allegation, but ABC News refused to air them.  

It wasn’t so much the responses Gingrich gave, which he presumably put together soon after seeing the ABC News broadcast, that got Republican so excited, but that he said them at all.  It was the idea that one Republican candidate, on one particular day, pointed a finger in the face of member of the mainstream media and said, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  When we returned to our seats, we assumed this would be a one-off, by one individual Republican, that would likely never happen again in our lifetime, until Monday. On Monday, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus basically put a similar finger in the face of those networks that planned to run a favorable Hillary movie in the midst of an election year.

Republican voters were confused, because have basically been told, for a couple generations now, that whining about the liberal nature of the media is pointless.  We have been told that we have to accept the fact that major media outlets are going to air their love for liberals without shame, because that’s what they tell us that the masses want.  They masses “want” moderators concentrating on Ronald Reagan’s foibles in debates, they want constant shots of George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, and they want Candy Crowley as a moderator.  There’s just nothing we can do about it, the RNC has basically informed us by doing nothing about it.  For this reason, Priebus’s statement was a breath of fresh air.

‘Now don’t let it die!’ Republicans are now mentally screaming at the RNC.  Don’t let it appear as if Priebus’s statement was nothing more than a symbolic indignant fig leaf thrown to Republican constituents to counter the wildly partisan efforts being proposed by NBC and CNN.  ‘Continue flexing the muscle that the Democrat National Committee did when they refused to have a Fox News primary in 2012,’ Republicans are mentally screaming.  ‘You, the RNC, do have some power in these debate negotiations.  Go get some of it!  The major networks no longer hold all the cards.’ 

Republican voters would, of course, prefer to have all of their primary debates on Fox News, or maybe even C-Span, but as we all know, “If you want to convert people, some of the times you have to go where the sinners are.”  With that in mind, the RNC is forced to have some of their primary debates on some of the major networks.  It does not mean, however, that they have to be subjected to a moderator that married a person so close to the Democrat front runner, that he attended their wedding (Martha Raddatz).  It does not mean that they are required to have a moderator that wrote books and profiles praising the Democrat front runner (Gwen Ifill).{3}  It does not mean that we have to have a moderator that used to work on a national campaign for Democrats (George Stephanopoulos).  It does not mean that we have to follow the selection process chosen by an overwhelmingly liberal Commission on Presidential Debates.

Most Republicans, most people, know little to nothing about the process of selecting moderators, but according to the Daily Caller, and the Mitt Romney campaign of 2012, it’s all left up to the Commission on Presidential Debates.  Before any of the Romney v. Obama debates took place, the Daily Caller listed the following attributes of the members of the Commission on Presidential Debates: Antonia Hernandez was a member of the progressive American Constitutional Society; liberal friend and supporter of Obama Warren Buffet’s son, Howard Buffet; an Obama friend named Richard Parsons; a man named John Jenkins that outraged orthodox Catholics by inviting Obama to speak at their Catholic university Notre Dame; president of the progressive-leaning Council on Foundations, Dorothy Ridings; a progressive-leaning, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, named Newton Minow; two social liberal Senators John C. Danforth and Alan K. Simpson; a former Obama official named Janet H. Brown, a former Bill Clinton spokesman Michael D. McCurry; and a Republican named Frank J. Fahrenkopf. 

When questions arose about the possible effect liberal moderators, chosen by an obviously liberal commission, could have on debate, the Romney campaign displayed the gutlessness that Republicans are accustomed to by declining to comment.  “Debate moderators are selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates.  You should check with them for questions.”{4}  So, if everything on this commission remains consistent in future elections, concerned Republicans are to direct all future questions to a commission that is eight-to-one liberal?  I’m sure that they would inform us that none of their potential moderators are liberal by an eight-to-one vote. 

Most Republican constituents were elated with the specific comments Reince Priebus made on August 5, 2013 about the networks, but those comments were specifically directed at some specific actions proposed by specific networks.  It’s time to get general.  It’s time to take on the generally accepted practices of Commission on Presidential Debates determining moderators.  

Why would a RNC Chairman be satisfied, for example, with this obviously, liberal commission’s selections for a Republican primary debate?   Why wouldn’t we insist that, at the very least, that commission have more Republicans on it?  And if we don’t, are Republican voters going to forever be relegated to candidates, like Romney and McCain, that handle liberal questions better?

It would be difficult to get any Republicans on this commission right now, of course, due to the fact that everything in Washington, and the mainstream media, is currently being run by liberals.  With that in mind, the RNC could commission a thirty party institution to research and score potential moderators based on their politics. 

At this point in history, there would be no better third part institution to tackle this task than Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center.  The Center is already doing the research on the media, and its personalities, all they would have to do is tally up their findings and send it to the RNC.  What this would do, other than possibly providing the Republican primary debates more moderate moderators, is it would shut Republican constituents up.  If they still complained, and some probably would, the RNC chairman could say, “Hey, Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center gave that moderator a zero in political identification with five being the most liberal, and a zero being the most moderate.  We trusted that they would do their due diligence on these moderators.  If you have any complaints, go to them.”      

An option for the general election debates, as posed by Brent Bozell, could work too.  Bozell posits that a general election debate:

Could appear like CNN’s “Crossfire” (debating format) in its heyday.  (Fox News’s Bill) O’Reilly could interview/combat the Democrat; and Bill could recruit his new pal (Comedy Central’s) Jon Stewart to interview the Republican from the left.{5}

It’s an interesting idea at the very least, even if it wasn’t those personalities.  For one debate, at least, the Republicans could choose the Democrat’s moderator, and the Democrats could choose the Republican’s.  There would be the need for rebuttal, of course, but that could be worked out to be fair to both parties.

As for the town hall debates where the networks select questions from “you, the viewer”.  Most Republicans watching these debates are incredulous with the liberal nature of some of these questions.  Most Republicans believe, fairly or unfairly, that the networks sift through these questions looking for the most liberal questions “that matter most to Americans”.  Most Republicans walk away from these debates believing that their concerns with these candidates were not addressed, and only those questions that liberals use to depict America are asked. There has to be a better way of determining which questions are selected in that process too.  The RNC needs to exert more muscle in the ways these debates are conducted, and while most were happy with Priebus’s comments, we’re not even close to being satisfied. 

The natural assumption that a moderate, or liberal, reader might have in reaction to these Republican sentiments is that we want a Rush Limbaugh, or a Sean Hannity, to moderate Republican primary debates, so they can leave hanging curveballs for Republicans.  While I do not think that either of these men would do such a thing, I understand that perception.  Republicans want to see moderators test the mettle of our candidates, as much as anyone else, but there’s a difference between grilling a candidate to see what he’s made of, and trapping them for the purpose of creating a sound bite that can be run by the national media.  This, seemingly time-honored tradition of baiting and trapping Republicans can be broken if the RNC would show a lot more muscle.  It’s something that Republican constituents, tired of milquetoast candidates, have been calling for for at least a generation, and the RNC can do something about it, and Reince Priebus’s most recent statement should only be the step one in that ongoing effort. 



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