Remember when the Republican presidential candidates were going to unite and assert themselves, elbowing aside the media and the Republican National Committee to seize control of the debate process? That was way back on … Friday?
Oh, they had such plans, such glorious plans. In their draft list of demands, they insisted that candidates be granted “pre-approval of any graphics and bios” used in the broadcast. (I can see it now: “Jeb Bush: Greatest governor in Florida history”, standing next to “Donald Trump: Babe magnet”) They wanted to outlaw candidate-to-candidate questions, “lightning round” questions, questions requiring a yes or no answer. So-called “gotcha questions” in general were to be avoided, and they also wanted to ban reaction shots of the audience and moderators, or shots of the candidates referring to their notes.
Oh, and they wanted to be guaranteed both opening and closing statements, with Ben Carson at one point proposing that each candidate be given up to five minutes of uninterrupted time. With 10 candidates, that alone would eat up at least half of a two-hour debate. That would certainly be convenient for candidates who want to minimize the risk of saying something dumb or ill–informed, but it would not meet the needs of voters trying to get a feel for character, response to pressure and basic policy knowledge.
Not surprisingly, the reaction to such demands was universally harsh. As Megyn Kelly of Fox News put it mockingly, the candidates were demanding everything but a foot massage. And then there was this guy:
Look, it’s true that the media at times are more interested in provoking conflict and drama than in producing insight — conflict drives ratings, ratings drive ad dollars, ad dollars drive salaries. That’s not ideology, that’s capitalism.¹ But it is also true that when the media go overboard in that direction, as CNBC did, public response will let them know it. That’s as it should be.
And overall, I think this abortive revolt has made an important point. It has ended up proving that the one thing worse than a debate system run by the media would be a debate system that is controlled by the campaigns.
¹ It is of course standard GOP theory that the media are out to get them, a subset of their larger sense that the whole world is out to get them. That theory also holds that news outlets such as CNN would never ask tough questions of Democrats.
However, I don’t think that theory holds up under an honest look at questions directed at Democrats during the recent CNN debate:
“Secretary Clinton, I want to start with you. Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?”
Senator Sanders, a Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?
Secretary Clinton, Russia — they’re challenging the U.S. in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence, they’ve lied about who they’re bombing. You spearheaded the reset with Russia. Did you underestimate the Russians, and as president, what would your response to Vladimir Putin be right now in Syria?
Senator Webb, you said as president you would never have used military force in Libya and that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was, in your words, “inevitable.” Should Secretary Clinton have seen that attack coming?
Secretary Webb, you served in Vietnam. You’re a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. You served as a Marine in Vietnam. You’re a decorated war hero. You eventually became secretary of the Navy. During the Vietnam War, the man standing next to you, Senator Sanders, applied for status as a conscientious objector. Given his history, can he serve as a credible commander-in-chief?
Secretary Clinton, you are going to be testifying before Congress next week about your e-mails. For the last eight months, you haven’t been able to put this issue behind you. You dismissed it; you joked about it; you called it a mistake. What does that say about your ability to handle far more challenging crises as president?
(And the followup): Secretary Clinton, Secretary Clinton, with all due respect, it’s a little hard – I mean, isn’t it a little bit hard to call this just a partisan issue? There’s an FBI investigation, and President Obama himself just two days ago said this is a legitimate issue.
Secretary Clinton, how would you address this issue (of income inequality)? In all candor, you and your husband are part of the 1 percent. How can you credibly represent the views of the middle class?
Senator Sanders, in 2013, you voted for immigration reform. But in 2007, when Democrats controlled Congress and the Bush White House was onboard, you voted against it. Why should Latino voters trust you now when you left them at the altar at the moment when reform was very close?
Senator Sanders, you talked about your record on the Veteran Affairs Committee. You served on that committee for the last eight years, including two years as its chairman while veterans died waiting for health care. You and Senator McCain ultimately addressed the issue with bi-partisan legislation. Why did it take 18 Inspector General reports, and a CNN investigation, and others, before you and your colleagues took action?
Secretary Clinton, you told Christiane Amanpour you didn’t smoke pot when you were young, and you’re not going to start now. When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, you told her let’s wait and see how it plays out in Colorado and Washington. It’s been more than a year since you’ve said that. Are you ready to take a position tonight?