When Republican presidential campaign managers met for their “family dinner” Sunday night to draw up a list of debate demands going forward, there was one network they let off the hook. “The campaigns reached an early consensus on one issue, according to several operatives in the room: the secure standing of Fox News Channel,” the Washington Post reported. “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 line about fearing Ailes has been challenged, though it’s not hard to believe that Republican campaigns would fear running afoul of perhaps the most powerful figure in conservative media.
It’s a fear that Republican campaigns don’t have of CNBC or NBC or ABC or any other network that’s in line to moderate a Republican primary debate. Though the camps may complain about fair treatment, the non-Fox debates give Republican candidates a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card whenever they don’t like a question: Just attack the moderator as a liberal stooge determined to get Hillary Clinton elected president. Though it may have seemed like a victory, getting former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos to recuse himself from moderating a Republican debate came at a cost: The candidates won’t be able to reject any of Stephanopoulos’ challenging questions out of hand. Then again, they’ll just do what they would have done to Stephanopoulos to his replacement. It’s easy to get away with it in an auditorium packed with spectators who have been conditioned to believe that all non-Fox media outlets are carrying out an Alinsky-ite agenda to institute full communism.
The campaigns’ plan to send a joint letter to all upcoming debate hosts demanding certain concessions fell apart as quickly as it came together. Several candidates began to recognize that they were looking like hilarious whiners hostile to the principles of a free press by insisting on, say, final approval over what infographics would air. The most recent version of the letter has been excised of some of its more immediately mockable planks but so far has few signatories beyond the insecure front-runner who first proposed it, Ben Carson.
While this may look like an embarrassment on the campaigns’ part, the failure of the effort will allow the candidates to keep the “biased moderators” excuse in their back pockets. That ensures that candidates who are unable to defend themselves in tight spots will simply call the moderators liberal liars and get away with it.
There’s only one answer, aside from the candidates themselves getting sudden infusions of dignity. It may not be feasible at this point in the 2016 cycle, but it’s something to consider as they draft the 2020 or 2024 rules: Just let Fox host all of the Republican debates.
Fox hosted the first and so far best debate. Its moderators, Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, and Megyn Kelly, were able to rattle off plenty of worthwhile questions without suffering too much whiny blowback. Yes, yes, the one big exception being Donald Trump, who may have hypothesized that Kelly was menstruating. The reaction that earned from other campaigns and conservatives voices, though, was neither agreement nor even a more appropriately worded criticism of Kelly’s questioning. It was a total defense of Kelly and her journalistic credentials. And she asked questions that were just as, if not more, pointed than anything the flappy-mouthed stock pickers of CNBC could muster.
Fox is the answer to this debate drama in the same way that Rep. Paul Ryan was the answer to the leadership crisis in the House of Representatives. Ryan was the only figure with enough of a conservative pedigree to earn the support of all House factions. Though we’ll see how things go [ominous music], Ryan’s credibility theoretically gives him more leeway to conduct the nation’s business without complaints about how he doesn’t have conservatives’ interests at heart. Fox could ask the same questions that stealth Marxist-Leninist agents like CNBC’s John Harwood would without the criticism about it trying to ruin the election for Republicans. Why, Fox might even have the latitude to press for follow-up questions when candidates are blatantly lying. It’s a whole new world of possibilities!
Just let Fox do it all. Surely Fox would be fine with this, since they’d make an enormous amount of money selling advertisements. And the candidates themselves, who have been calling for Republicans to moderate the Republican debates, would have no choice but to smile at the arrangement—even as they recognize that their liberal media bogeyman has been taken away.