Fox News's definition of a "candidate for President" fails the laugh test

Ed reported on Fox News’ decision to suspend its business relationship with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum because they, as Bret Baier put it, “have signaled possible runs for the presidency.”

The move caught a lot of us off guard, first because it doesn’t seem necessary — neither have formally put together exploratory committees — but second, the decision fails to address the two biggest elephants in Fox’s living room, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Can anyone see a genuine difference between where Gingrich and Santorum are in their candidacies, and where Huckabee and Palin are in theirs? Indeed, none of the four have exploratory committees, and none have said “no” when asked if they might run. Not a Sherman Statement among them.

Whether you’re a Sarah or Huckabee fan, a Newt or Santorum backer, or a just a curious unaffiliated Republican observer of the events, FNC’s decision poses a real dilemma. Ed, Allahpundit, and many others have observed the extent to which Fox, since 2008, has taken the Republican candidates for the 2012 nomination and added them to the universe of paid contributors. There’s not a thing wrong with that, and FNC has benefited enormously by acquiring the candidates’ services.

What is wrong, however, is for Fox News to hold the candidates to different standards of “candidacy.” I have no dog in a talking heads fight, and particularly as to the candidates that just got bounced from FNC studios, I’m personally underwhelmed by their primary and general election prospects. But as a Republican, it is deeply troubling that Fox News would make this move since it suggests one of (at least) three things:

  • Huckabee and Palin have told Fox News they aren’t running. This poses problems for Fox News and for the former governors, because FNC would then be withholding news, and the candidates would in effect be misleading voters and viewers as to their intentions. Being “coy” about whether you’ll run wouldn’t be a problem if Fox had a bright-line definition of what does and does not constitute a candidate — like establishing an exploratory committee — and therefore who gets Fox News airtime, but as I’ve laid out already, Santorum, Gingrich, Palin and Huckabee are all in identical positions at present. None have exploratory committees, and none have said “no” to running. In fact, it’s the possibility they’ll run that has been a great deal of the allure for FNC to employ them, and viewers to watch them. Which brings us to a shadier option:
  • Huckabee and Palin might run, but they’re too valuable to “suspend.” This is a distinct and troubling possibility, one that on the evidence is still an open question. Gingrich and Santorum are with little doubt minor candidates relative to the triumvirate of Romney-Palin-Huckabee. Losing Gingrich-Santorum would be less expensive than losing 2/3rds of the major league 2012 Republican field. Fox News is then effectively picking its GOP winners and losers, keeping on payroll those that are more likely to have a ROI and jettisoning those that don’t under a banner of “neutrality,” when it’s anything but. FNC runs a business, and I get that. But if Santorum and Gingrich’s departure was based on that kind of cost-benefit analysis, it’s a serious ethical lapse taken in full view of the consequences.
  • Fox News is trying to get the Presidential race going. It’s the most unlikely of the possibilities, but here’s how it would work: Fox News bounces Gingrich and Santorum, putting them into de facto full campaign mode. (Gingrich may have anticipated FNC’s move to cull its roster yesterday, to no avail.) Huck and Sarah are then forced to distinguish their intentions from Gingrich’s and Santorum’s, with both “yes” and “no” answers having their own consequences as to who does and doesn’t get in. Consequently, the race is on. Unlikely, but possible.

Again, this is not me opining as a sort of sad minor candidate backer. The likelihood that I would personally support either Santorum or Gingrich in a primary is low, but “suspending” them in this manner was the wrong thing to do. Unfairly or not, it will probably take Palin and Huckabee to make the situation right. And it was all avoidable.