How so? According to the Washington Post’s editors, the candidate demands threaten to undermine the “integrity” of the GOP’s presidential debates. After watching the CNBC debacle — which they only grudgingly admit to being “mediocre” rather than “scandalous” — it’s difficult to see an argument for integrity in this process at all, and certainly not in the egregiously biased attacks that took place in the opening hour of the most recent debate:
THREE DEBATES into the Republican presidential contest, the candidates are staging a revolt. Piling onto CNBC for its mediocre — but hardly scandalous — moderating last week, several campaigns are drawing up demands for the media organizations sponsoring debates during the rest of the nominating season. Others are issuing demands on their own. Their discontent has already led to real-world changes: The Republican National Committee reshuffled staff in response.
A staff reshuffle is one thing. Anything that could harm the integrity of the debates, on the other hand, must be rejected.
The “integrity” to which the WaPo editorial board refers is the need to ask questions about what interests media outlets rather than voters in the GOP primaries:
The largest danger to the process, though, is that this controversy might lead Republicans to choose to debate before conservative-friendly media organizations instead of outlets more likely to offer questions out of line with right-wing orthodoxies. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) suggested that irresponsible ideologues Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or Sean Hannity moderate the GOP debates. Carly Fiorina wants the RNC to organize future debates with fringey networks such as the Blaze and One America News. The goal, it seems, is to replace perceived liberal bias among moderators with explicit and purposeful conservative bias.
It’s so cute to see the Post’s editors sneer at the idea of “perceived” liberal bias after the debacle of the CNBC debate. They seem to be almost alone in arguing that the personal attacks, the tendentious questions, and the argumentative interruptions that characterized the contribution from CNBC’s panel had nothing to do with political bias. Maybe they should have asked Janelle Ross, who unlike the editors appears to have actually watched the debacle, about just how bad it was, without even delving into the question of political bias:
If there is a cliché that exists among clichés — that defines the meaning of the word cliché — it may well be that question CNBC debate moderator Carl Quintanilla put to the candidates at the very outset of the debate about their biggest weaknesses. …
The CNBC team guiding the debate did ask questions that included the words “comic book version of a presidential campaign” and basically everything else that Cruz mentioned. Some of the questions were probably aiming for substantive answers. But they were phrased in a way that, yet again, screamed, “We’ve workshopped this language with millennials. This network and our advertisers want their attention. We want to be cool.”
And it’s hard not to think that some of that time could have been better spent fact-checking and asking follow-up questions about the various tax plans and “strategic” federal budget cuts mentioned by the candidates on stage. …
What The Fix can say, with all the respect in the world for the hard work of journalism, is that this week simply did not offer a lot of shining examples of political journalism as a form of public service, helping to strengthen democracy.
To return to the question of supposedly irresponsible ideologues, at the very least, having the aforementioned hosts moderate a debate would provide some diversity among the ideologues. And unlike the disorganized contempt displayed by CNBC’s panel for Republicans and their priorities, messeurs Limbaugh, Levin, and Hannity actually know what those voters want discussed in these debates. After all, the purpose of this is to give primary voters a clearer understanding of the candidates’ positions on policy. It’s not to provide the ideologues from the New York Times and NBC News an opportunity to sneer at the candidates and derail that informative purpose.
The RNC did try reforming the debate process, and succeeded in controlling the exposure to this kind of mainstream media “integrity,” but they didn’t go far enough in their reforms. The true problem is the format itself, especially with the number of candidates who remain in the race. As I write in my column for The Week today, changing this format and cutting the strings to network “sponsors” should be the priority to get rid of the game show format and get back to informing Republican primary voters:
These events are not debates in any substantive sense. The game-show format and the number of candidates on stage make substantive debate all but impossible. These are sound bite and gaffe contests, not a forum for sharp, honest arguments about the future of our country and party.
Nothing of substantive value emerged from two hours of wasted air time in the CNBC debate; indeed, all we have learned in nearly 14 hours of debate is how well the candidates can launch zingers. That might be valuable if we were electing the next Borscht Belt headliner, but hardly useful for choosing the next leader of the free world.
This is a failure of imagination more than a deficit of competence. We need to truly rethink debates themselves, and not just squabble over a hopelessly broken process. The RNC needs to put an end to both network sponsorship and the game-show format. If 14 candidates make the grade for a debate, then use a format that allows all 14 to make arguments for their policy choices. Offer a set of identical questions on a policy area to every candidate individually and give them each 15 minutes to answer, providing equal time for every candidate. That would require three and a half hours. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, it’s still shorter than the undercard + main event of each of the three previous debates.
When the field comes down to a manageable number — say, six or fewer — then a two-hour debate has a chance to offer substantive discussions that can frame Republican and conservative policy in an attractive manner.
It’s worth noting that this is precisely what the Carson campaign argued to do. The other campaigns should listen to that advice.