With New Debate Strategy, GOP Slips Further Into The Right-Wing Media Bubble

“The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself.” --The RNC's post-2012 election report.

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) fumes about "gotcha" questions from "clueless" political reporters and vows not to be distracted by them on the campaign trail. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly blames the media for the swirling controversies surrounding his “combat” reporting, and even levels an on-the-record “threat” against a New York Times reporter for daring to cover the story. And now the Republican Party announces it's teaming up with partisan, conservative media partners to help host primary debates in an effort to make the forums more appealing for candidates.

The first three Republican debates will air on CNN and will be co-presented by the Salem Media Group, a major player in right-wing talk radio. (Its CEO is also politically active in conservative causes.) Salem talker Hugh Hewitt has been invited to be among those asking candidates questions at the first debate. Afterwards, Republican participants will “be invited to join Hewitt to talk candidly about the event,” according to a press release. A Salem talk radio host will be included in each of the three debates.

In shifting some of the debate control away from independent journalists, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is following through on his promise last year to make the debates more GOP-friendly and to tap media participants “who are actually interested in the Republican Party.”

It's true that there's nothing inherently wrong with having a talk radio partisan like Hewitt in the mix on the night of a debate. Different perspectives should always be welcome. But the inclusion of unabashed Republican cheerleaders for this year's forums appears to be driven out of fear and distrust of the news media, not out of a GOP desire for inclusion. Indeed, the move has an undeniable whiff of paranoia about it.

And the press fever seems to be spreading, to the point where conservative media nearly uniformly announced this year that asking Scott Walker his opinion about evolution suddenly represented an egregious “gotcha” media trap. (That question has been asked of presidential candidates for years, and for years nobody objected. Until now.)

Republicans have always waged a simmering, tactical war with the “liberal” media, urging followers to distrust the press. But increasingly the party and its conservative supporters seem to be actively disengaging from the news media and retreating deeper into a right-wing bubble. This, of course, comes after lots of hand wringing after President Obama's easy 2012 victory about how Republicans had to do the exact opposite; how the friendly confines of the conservative media were leading the party into a electoral dead end every four years during White House campaigns.

After Mitt Romney's 2012 loss, which actually took lots of conservative pundits by surprise even though almost every major poll predicted it, some Republicans vowed to break their dependence on the right-wing media bubble. Strategists insisted the party tackle its “choir-preaching problem.” Republican campaign pro Mike Murphy urged Republicans to embrace a view of America that wasn't lifted from “Rush Limbaugh's dream journal.”

Then came the so-called "autopsy" from the Republican National Committee in March, 2013. Dubbed the "Growth & Opportunity Project," the RNC cataloged the party's failures and urged it to become more inclusive and able to engage and persuade non-believers. “On messaging, we must change our tone,” the report concluded.

For instance, “Governor Romney declined several invitations to appear and speak directly to our audience throughout the campaign,” BET's vice president of news in 2012, David Scott, told BuzzFeed.

Note the contrast: During Hillary Clinton's extensive media tour last summer, which coincided with her book release, she answered hundreds of questions from all types of journalists, including a live, on-air interview with Fox News, which will likely do everything in its power to defeat her in 2016 if she's the Democratic nominee. 

As for Hewitt, he's a somewhat peculiar choice as a debate questioner. In terms of campaigns, Hewitt's rather infamous for his breathless, almost comical, predictions in 2008 and in 2012 about pending Republican White House victories.

Some highlights from Hewitt's fan writing [emphasis added]:

He who surges last surges best in a presidential campaign, and it appears that Romney has indeed caught the last big wave... Even as the legions of the president's enthusiastic supporters have melted away, new armies of energized Roman Catholics and Evangelicals are mobilizing across the country to defend their religious freedom, under direct assault from the president and his team of ideologues at HHS.

In 2008, Hewitt even shopped a book proposal, detailing how Sarah Palin had helped secure a Republican victory and “saved” America.

“The book obviously presumed [a McCain-Palin victory],” Hewitt's book agent told a reporter at the time. “But the theory was that her impact on this election will have a lasting effect regardless--that she's not gonna go anywhere, that she's just gonna be a figure in G.O.P. politics going forward.”

Hewitt, in other words, is very good at telling devoted followers what they want to hear. (i.e. “Five Reasons Ohio Will Go Romney-Ryan.” ) He's not very good at reflecting electoral realities. But maybe that's what the Republican Party wants during the 2016 campaign season.