How The Debate Debacle Could Backfire On Republicans

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November 3, 2015 6:00 am
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A new round of chaos in the 2016 presidential primary has erupted, with a full-on revolt by GOP 2016ers against this cycle’s debate structures.

After widespread frustration with the tough questioning candidates faced in last week’s CNBC debate, a shake-up at the Republican National Committee has been ordered. A draft letter is being circulating with candidates making their own demands of the networks in return for participating in debates. And Donald Trump — the most volatile element in the entire field — has defected from his rival candidates to set up his own set of conditions.

The idea of a candidate-controlled debate cycle is not just causing the media concern for its loss of influence. It is prompting new headaches for the already exhausted GOP elites, and some Republicans are worried that too much coddling will harm their party in the long run.

“There is tremendous cultural bias, a tremendous ideological bias that Republican candidates have to face. But that does not mean though that every criticism offered by a Republican candidate in the face of a tough but legitimate question is a legitimate criticism,” Steve Schmidt, who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told TPM.

“In almost every instance, there’s no such thing as a bad question, there’s only a bad answer,” he said. “Every question — no matter how biased, how banal, how malevolent — is an opportunity for a candidate to show an aspect of their character.”

One of the ironies of the hyper-focus on the debate format is that the RNC had worked to streamline (read: limit) the number of primary debates in order to make the process less debilitating for its eventual nominee. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called the primary debate schedule in 2012 “an embarrassment and ridiculous,” and the RNC unveiled a new plan for this cycle’s debates at the beginning of the year.

The candidates’ current debate debacle is partly the result of a unusually large field, with each candidate desperate to stand apart from the rest.

“I see a lot of this emanating from that desperation,” retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson — who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the George W. Bush administration — told TPM, pointing to the packed field and particularly to Trump.

“They’re desperate to find fixes to this desperation, and they’re looking for fixes in the only places they have a possibility of finding them, by manipulating the media, by narrowing the debate, by making sure that the people who ask them questions ask them the right questions,” Wilkerson said. “It’s all the thrashing around of a suicidal party.”

After the 2012 election, some commentators raised concerns of a conservative media bubble that has shielded Republican voters from facing the reality of their electoral landscape. The Republican National Committee itself — in its post-election autopsy report — urged the party to broaden its reach, particularly when it comes to “reaching out to Hispanic media and news outlets.”

But the single debate the RNC had planned with a Spanish-speaking network remains in jeopardy now that the party has suspended its relationship with NBC — which owns Telemundo — over last week’s CNBC debate. At a meeting Sunday among campaign representatives to discuss debate demands, a Trump staffer vowed the billionaire would boycott the Telemundo debate, while former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) is publicly calling for it to be reinstated.

“Where there is 50 plus million Latinos in this country, it would be devastating if the Republican debate circuit does not include a major Spanish speaking platform to reach that electorate,” Luis Alvarado, a Republican strategist, told TPM.

Then there is what GOP candidates are considering demanding of the debates still currently on the schedule: no “gotcha” questions, no candidate-on-candidate questioning and an assortment of other conditions — some routine, some out of the ordinary.

“I expect the candidates to be able to conform to the rules of the debate, it gives us the electorate the understanding of how they adapt to changing conditions and challenges as presidents,” Alvarado said. “If they are going to take it to the whiney state, then that in itself leaves a mark with the electorate.”

Alvarado is not the only conservative who thinks all the complaining may be doing more harm than good. Peter Johnson, Jr. — a Fox News analyst and longtime confidante of Fox News chief Roger Ailes — warned Monday, “At some point, the Republican candidates are going to look weaselly and weak if they continue on this parade.”

Some of the GOP candidates — like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina — have publicly sought to distance themselves from the grumbling.

A candidate-controlled debate structure could also put the eventual nominee — without a more thorough vetting during the primary — on a weaker ground come the general election.

“Let them get really blindsided when the media really comes after them, when the low information electorate finally starts paying attention and they know nothing about what has transpired,” Bruce Bartlett, an economic advisor to President Reagan who has since become disenchanted with the GOP and has warned of the conservative media bubble that has formed around Republicans.

While conservatives have been loudly panning CNBC for last week’s debate, some observers admit that, at the end of the day, it’s up to the candidate to make the most of the debate conditions presented to them.

“We’ve just seen Hillary Clinton go through 11 hours of questioning, and these guys can’t go a couple minutes of questioning?” Bartlett said.

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