Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus says that he prefers a debate process for the presidential primaries in which the moderators are “serving the best interests of the candidates and the party,” which raises the question of which networks would be willing to participate in debates under those limitations.
On August 5, Priebus sent letters to NBC and CNN informing the networks that unless they cancel their planned miniseries and documentary on Hillary Clinton, he will seek to ban them from participating in the Republican primary debates leading up to the 2016 election.
There are legitimate conflict-of-interest issues raised by the NBC and CNN programs, but Priebus' response is driven by a longer-term effort to prevent Republican candidates from being asked tough questions.
Priebus has previously stated that he believes “the party should have more control over who moderates, and we should have more control over the partners.” Priebus explained what the party would be looking for in future moderators during an August 6 interview on Fox News.
Priebus complained that it's “ridiculous” to be “allowing moderators who are not serving the best interests of the candidates and the party to actually be the people deposing our people.” He added that it is “incumbent on the Republican Party today to get its act together, put together a reasonable debate calendar with moderators who are not trying to kill us.”
It's not yet clear what a series of debates featuring moderators “serving the best interests” of the GOP would look like. Would they demand former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as the moderator for a CNN debate? Would former RNC chairman Michael Steele as the moderator be the price MSNBC would have to pay to host one? Could we see an ABC debate moderated by George Will? Would Chris Wallace or Bret Baier suffice for a Fox News debate, or would the RNC demand Sean Hannity?
More to the point, would the networks be willing to accept those demands for the privilege of carrying Republican debates on their airwaves?
After Mitt Romney was defeated in the 2012 election, Fox News' Karl Rove said that the grueling Republican primary debate schedule was to blame:
Karl Rove on Tuesday argued that President Obama won re-election despite his weaknesses with voters because Mitt Romney was a so-so candidate lured by the media into conservative positions during the GOP primaries.
“I think that's right,” he answered when former newsman Ted Koppel asked if Romney had been undone by that early phase of the presidential race. “I do think the primary was destructive to him.” Rove then added that he placed “blame” with journalists who hosted the debates.
Blaming the media is a time-tested message for Republicans. But the embarrassing moments in the Republican debates were largely the result of candidates who weren't ready for primetime either offering up misstatements or admitting that they hold positions revered by the conservative base but abhorrent to most Americans.
Drawing out candidates to acknowledge their positions and asking them challenging questions about their policies and worldview may not be in “best interests” of the candidates. But it is in the interest of the voters.