Six long years ago, the Democratic candidates for president declared war on Fox News. The channel had partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus to put on a debate. The party’s online activist base, growing every month, started asking Democrats to skip that one. John Edwards went first, then Barack Obama, then Hillary Clinton, then—oh, the indignity—Bill Richardson! The debate was canceled faster than a Rob Schneider sitcom.
But the death rattle lasted for weeks. The Democratic campaigns were explicit: They canceled, in the words of an Edwards spokesman, because “there’s just no reason for Democrats to give Fox a platform to advance the right-wing agenda while pretending they’re objective.” Republicans and some media watchers warned that the diss would dog the party. “Any candidate for high office from either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake about journalists,” said Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.
He was wrong, at least that year. Democrats debated on other networks and produced a winning ticket. The lesson, finally internalized by Republicans, is that threatening to skip debates because of “bias” is a thrill for your base and does no harm to your candidates. Cue today’s letters from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who warned the presidents of NBC Entertainment and CNN Worldwide what might happen if two in-production Hillary Clinton films aired. “The committee will neither partner with you in 2016 primary debates nor sanction primary debates which you sponsor,” wrote Priebus.
It’s not always easy to get every Republican activist in 50 states singing from the same hymnal. That letter made it incredibly easy, because basically every Republican agreed with it. Even the March 2013 “party autopsy” report, which asked Republicans to moderate their messaging, bemoaned the early and loaded schedule of the 2012 campaign and how “the media” decided it. “In order to have a process that respects a candidate’s time and one that helps the Party win,” wrote the experts, “the Party should create a system that results in a more rational number of debates.” Rational means 10 to 12, maybe, and rational means no more jumping for everything the media proposes.
“We’re sending a signal to the media that we’re not going to tolerate this anymore,” said A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “For too long the Republicans have really stood back and stayed quiet and helpless as the networks have covered everything except the news—as they’ve become platforms for left-wing causes and candidates. That’s got to change. We’re not going to tolerate left-wing media propping up the people they want to run for president.”
Be fair: This was the logic Democrats used to kill the Fox debate. They viewed the debate as an attempt to legitimize a network they saw as illegitimate. The Republican version has a more pained, less universal hook, sticking to the outrage of a docudrama that might—well, nobody knows what it might contain, but it’s got Diane Lane in the lead, so it’s not going to be a takedown. “Liberals complained noisily when Citizens United sought to air a pay-per-view documentary on Hillary Clinton prior to the 2008 election,” wrote Priebus, “and yet they're conspicuously silent now.”
Priebus has given the networks nine days to answer the demand. For a moment, put aside the demand. Would it be such a terrible crime for the GOP to scrap some “mainstream media” debates in 2015? Would it be an improvement if the party put together more forums—viewable online, of course, or maybe on Fox—where the questions came from people they liked?
No, no, that could be fascinating. Republicans know exactly how to handle the mainstream media, and they know how to play against it. Newt Gingrich was never stronger than when he joined debate crowds in solidarity against whatever “preposterous” question that day’s rent-an-anchor was asking him. They’re often more compelling when their interviews are pushing them from the right. Who but Bill O’Reilly would tell John McCain that pro-immigration reform forces on the left “want to break down the white Christian male power structure of which you are a part?” Who but Glenn Beck would get Rand Paul to reveal his synapse-by-synapse approach to leveraging Senate votes for what he wanted?
That’s not to say the median conservative media interview is really tough, in the traditional sense. Republicans don’t give interviews to Sean Hannity or their local radio host because they’ll get grilled. They go because they get to say what they believe in a setting cozier and more lulling than an opium den. But there are advantages to that, and there are questions and ways of asking questions that the “MSM” wouldn’t think to use.
Look back to the 2011 debate co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. It wasn’t memorable, really, because nobody gaffed or imploded on the stage, but it took the candidates into turf they’d never been asked to explore. Ed Meese, the former attorney general and now full-time conservative scold, asked the candidates whether they’d make the Patriot Act permanent. “Shouldn't we have a long-range extension of the investigative powers contained in the act so that our law enforcement officers can have the tools that they need?” he asked. Fred Kagan, the think tanker most responsible for the Iraq “surge,” asked the only question about drone strikes in any debate that year: “Do you think that an expanded drone campaign in Pakistan would be sufficient to defeat al-Qaeda and to secure our interests in Pakistan?”
The format wasn’t perfect, as CNN was actually running the thing, and Wolf Blitzer got to ask the follow-ups. But those questions! They were the reality-based, policy-based questions that Aaron Sorkin fans (or Aaron Sorkin himself) dream about when the Professional Debates devolve into “this or that” questions. Watching the candidates submit to litmus tests, in real time, might give us new shades and details. Maybe the Hillary threat doesn’t look serious, but today the party said that candidates who agreed to debates on any rogue networks would face sanctions.
“There comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand," Spiker says. "Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, you had to use certain networks to get your message out. That’s just not true today. We’ll get our Republican candidates in front of the voters.”