The debacle of the CNBC-run presidential debate continued to ripple through the Republican primary fight this weekend, both publicly and privately. RNC chair Reince Priebus shuffled staff assignments to transfer responsibility for managing debates from Sean Spicer to Sean Cairncross in an effort to respond to the anger from the presidential campaigns:
The Republican National Committee has appointed a new official to serve as the lead debate negotiator between campaigns and media networks, seeking to curb candidates’ anger over the handling of the debate process.
Sean Cairncross, the RNC’s chief operating officer and former chief counsel, will take the reins from committee spokesman Sean Spicer, who had served as the chief negotiator.
RNC Chief of Staff Katie Walsh announced the change in a letter to the candidates’ campaigns on Sunday evening, minutes before campaign representatives convened for a meeting outside of Washington, D.C., to discuss potential changes to the debate process. The RNC was explicitly not invited to that meeting, given the campaigns’ desire to take greater control of the debate process.
“I know many of you have expressed some concern regarding how some of the details in the debate process have been handled to this point,” Walsh wrote. “While we believe most of the debate details have been handled well, I want you to know that at the RNC we have heard your concerns and take them very seriously. To that end we are making some changes to how we at the RNC will be handling the debate process going forward.”
That didn’t entirely satisfy the campaigns, however. They held an extraordinary meeting yesterday afternoon to wrest control of debate negotiations from the RNC, although in the end it appears that they want to keep the structure that Priebus created in response to the 2012 cycle’s failures. Instead, the campaigns want to control negotiations with the “sponsors” — the broadcasters — and keep the RNC on the sidelines:
GOP campaign operatives began arriving at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town at around 5:30 p.m. Sunday and headed upstairs to what had been code-named “family dinner.”
As the meeting got underway, senior strategists from several presidential campaigns revealed in e-mails and text messages that Priebus’s staff shake-up was not enough. One campaign manager, speaking about the private meeting on the condition of anonymity, wrote: “Major question is if the RNC should be involved at all.”
The campaigns reached an early consensus on one issue, according to several operatives in the room: the secure standing of Fox News Channel. Any changes would be applied to debates after next week’s Fox Business Network debate. Among the reasons, according to one operative in the room, was that “people are afraid to make Roger [Ailes] mad,” a reference to the network’s chief.
That sounds great … in theory. In practice, it sounds like a disaster. Currently, there are 14 candidates in the race with debate standing, all of whom are competing against each other for one nomination. At some point, it becomes akin to a game of Diplomacy*, where factions form and collapse as each candidate ends up trying to finesse all of the others. In fact, as Robert Costa and Dave Weigel report, the confab actually didn’t reach agreement on too many points. The lower-ranking campaigns want to eliminate the undercard and go for two randomly assigned debates of seven candidates each, for instance, while the more successful campaigns want to exclude some of the others.
Byron York reports on what little agreement came out of the meeting. It mostly consists of “tweaks,” York notes, not a revolution:
So what are they going to do about it? After the meeting, top Bobby Jindal adviser Gail Gitcho read out the action items from her meeting notes:
1) Campaigns will talk directly to network sponsors with respect to format.
2) The RNC will do logistics.
3) Opening and closing statements of 30 seconds minimum.
4) Equal number of questions.
5) Institute a process in which campaigns receive information from networks in a timely manner.
Along with Gitcho, other participants stressed the importance of the first item. “We’re going to negotiate directly with the sponsors [networks] about format,” Bennett told reporters after the meeting. “We all get to decide whether we’re going or not, so we’ll all get some say into the format. We’ll do a group conference call for every debate sponsor with every campaign.”
That would be a welcome development for the campaigns. But the basic RNC-planned structure — the number of debates, their location, the news organizations conducting them — will remain in place. Blowing up the system, this is not.
Again, item 1 sounds good in theory, but difficult to do in practice. What happens when the campaigns disagree on format? As York notes, some of the campaigns are satisfied with the basic format employed thus far, if not with the moderators at CNBC. Does a majority vote win? Do candidates refuse to participate if they come out on the losing end of such a vote? If those issues arise, the RNC would probably end up being the final authority, which may not make some of these campaigns too happy, either.
Still, it’s worth a shot, especially with the demand for equal questions. In the end, though, the debate structure itself and the reliance on network “sponsors” creates most of the problems that have these campaigns frustrated. The confab should have listened to Ben Carson and his suggestion to eliminate the latter and start rethinking the former by having the RNC “broadcast” the debates on YouTube, Facebook, or other alternative broadband media. “That’s a big idea, and one that will likely become reality someday,” York writes, “[b]ut not now.” Why not?
* – A side note: If you ever want to lose friends quickly, invite them to play Diplomacy.