Controlling Debates

So the RNC has unanimously approved the rather juvenile resolution “punishing” NBC and CNN for planning programming about Hillary Clinton by banning them from hosting Republican presidential candidate debates in 2016. I am sure heads will roll at the two networks.

More seriously, the resolution–and the “ultimatum” from Reince Prieubus that preceded it–has fed a more useful discussion in and beyond the Republican Party about candidate debate formats and who should control them.

Yesterday I wrote about the idea of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity moderating GOP debates and how that reflected the conservative movement’s desire to create a closed loop of discourse in which conservatives would “vet” candidates for their willingness to rule out any compromise or even discussions with non-conservatives. In response, Atrios argued that internal party criteria are what nomination contests are for:

I’m all for Sean and Rush running Republican primary debates, and liberal people running the Dem ones. They’re in tune with what the actual voters of such elections are interested in.

Kevin Drum agreed that Democrats might begin moving in this direction as well:

I’m not sure how this translates on the Democratic side, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few of the debates moderated by honest-to-goodness lefties rather than John King and Wolf Blitzer. Why not make the candidates defend themselves against criticism from the left? It’d be good for them to go up against Rick Perlstein and Katha Pollitt once or twice. Why not?

That all makes sense, but there’s something going on in the “let’s control our debates” drive in the GOP which isn’t about accountability to primary voters at all. Note this argument from National Review‘s John Fund in his partial endorsement of the exclusivity approach:

None of this is to suggest that Republicans who want to install exclusively conservative commentators as debate moderators and panelists have got it right. Debates will not serve the party well if they become an echo chamber or if the moderators address only hot-button issues that spark the conservative base. But a political party has a right to do its best to project the kind of image it wishes, and if that involves greater “diversity” in debate formats and participants, all the better.

Huh: so parties have a “right” to “project the kind of image” they want! This sounds like less, not more, transparency about the actual views of candidates. I observed yesterday that a lot of conservatives would probably be happy if they could somehow prohibit non-conservatives from watching their nomination-contest debates. It’s one thing to “control” debates so that the interests of primary voters are better reflected in the questions. It’s another thing altogether to try to hide the answers from the general electorate.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.