GOP Overplays Hand (Again) in Debate-Complaint Department; Here’s One Real Solution to Consider
Give us an inch, we’ll take a mile. That should be the new slogan for Republicans these days, who are like the Mets of political parties, where no lead or advantage is safe… especially in big spots when the microscope is on.
We’re talking, of course, about the GOP response to the editorialized and partisan debate conducted by CNBC. Do changes need to be made moving forward? Yes. Should the RNC do a better job in vetting moderators like John Harwood and/or agreeing to allow them to moderate? Yes. That’s not an ideological argument: even some liberal commentators who watched what happened last Wednesday night saw a textbook lesson on how not to conduct a debate. The candidates do have a right to be upset, and whenever any of them–as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio showed that night on stage–call out the media for being adversarial, it’s kind of prime red meat that gets GOP voters licking the plate with thunderous applause.
But there’s such a thing as overplaying a hand, for pushing too many chips to the middle of the table too early. Republicans should know this all too well thanks to Monica, impeachment, and Ken Starr. And that’s exactly what’s happening now around a laughable laundry list of debate demands which included just about everything except milk and cookies during commercial breaks. Asking for temperature control is understandable given the makeup factor (I know this from experience). But questions on matters such as lightning rounds and show of hands? Get the hell out of here. So what was just a few days ago a legitimate gripe about fairness now crosses the line into whining, which never plays well.
The president seized on this perspective yesterday during a fundraiser in New York:
“Every one of these candidates says, ‘Obama’s weak, Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out. And then it turns out, they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators. If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”
Of course, this is the same Commander-in-Chief who has reached a Trump-esque degree of thin-skinned when it comes to complaints about the media (particularly Fox News) for being out to get him. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz–who rules her party’s debates with a Putin-like iron fist (Example: Rachel Maddow will be moderating the DNC’s next debate [officially called a “forum”]) jumped on the bandwagon as well:
— D Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) October 29, 2015
It’s amusing to listen to the president and DNC chair offer advice on being tough in debate settings, as Mr. Obama never had to participate in a debate with Fox moderators (who proved to be tough to Republicans despite predictions of softballs going back to August), nor has DWS ever allowed one on that network as DNC chair. And you know what they say, if you can’t handle those guys (and girls), I don’t think the Chinese and Russians are going to be too worried about you (no worries, they’re already not).
Back to the Republicans, any coalition they tried to hastily put together has already fallen apart, with Christie, Fiorina and Kasich wisely dismissing the GOP letter proposing debate changes. If you’re negotiating this moving forward, the solution is fairly simple: instead of allowing pundits/opinion folks, pick and choose print reporters to be moderators instead. Remember, these debates have drawn record numbers for Fox, CNN twice, and CNBC. Moderating such an event only raises anyone’s brand (and, for example, if done correctly like Anderson Cooper did with CNN’s Democratic debate, gravitas). But if a political print reporter is in that moderator spot, the look-at-me element goes away, and in the process, substantive questions without editorial grandstanding come in its place.
So for the debate slot open on February 26th with the RNC (for now) booting NBC, Jim Oliphant of Reuters and Julie Pace of the Associated Press would be two down-the-middle, solid, veteran political reporters to strongly consider to handle that debate if placed elsewhere. Sorry… Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh ain’t the answer here.
In the meantime, the GOP needs to cease complaining about the CNBC debate. It’s already old news. Fix the problem (quietly and without multiple campaigns negotiating, which redefines the definition of herding cats) and move on. Calling out media bias will get some applause at rallies, yes. Right-wing radio will cheer, yes. But in the end, the voters that really count in the general aren’t going to care very much.
Given the scrutiny the CNBC debate received, it’s a safe bet to assume future moderators will be careful to avoid editorializing in their questions given the microscope that’s on them now. And hopefully, finally, we’ll get some real answers when real questions are asked, which would make everyone–the candidates, voters–happy if entertainment isn’t solely the goal.
Give us an inch, we’ll take a mile. Republicans sure know how to turn a positive into a negative quickly. But given there’s still 370 days to Election Day, there’s still plenty of time to cut through the noise and controversy to get… you know… an actual, detailed message out.
Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.