RNC chief doubles down on debate boycott. Smart move for GOP?

CNN and NBC remain in the cross hairs of Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus, over their plans for programs about Hillary Clinton. His threat to boycott those networks during the GOP presidential debates has its strategic advantages.

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    Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in 2011.
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Over the weekend Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus doubled down on his threat to withhold 2016 GOP presidential debates from CNN and NBC if the networks air planned programs on Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, host Candy Crowley asked Mr. Priebus whether he’d throw Fox News into the debate penalty box as well, given a New York Times report that a Fox sister company is in talks to produce the Hillary Clinton miniseries now slated to appear on NBC.

Priebus made it clear Fox would not be included in any RNC boycott. First of all, he downplayed the Times report, saying he “doesn’t know the truth of anything you’re talking about,” and that “I’m not going to boycott the food trucks that service all of the same companies.”

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Then he said he’s really aiming at the networks that may put Clinton shows on the air, whether the programs are scripted entertainment dramas or news documentaries.

“What channel am I going to tune into to see the documentary and the miniseries that is all about promoting Hillary Clinton? And at this point, it sounds like it’s going to be CNN and NBC. And if that’s the case, they’re not going to be involved in our debates – period,” said Priebus.

Plus, the RNC on Monday started running paid YouTube ads calling on CNN and NBC to “dump the docs or lose debates.”

“It’s basically us putting our money where our mouth is,” an RNC spokesman told Daniel Halper of The Weekly Standard.

Priebus took some heat for his “State of the Union” performance from some members of the punditocracy on Monday. They felt the RNC chief appeared taken aback by the Fox News link, as if he hadn’t heard the latest developments.

“The words ‘due diligence’ don’t necessarily go with ‘Reince Priebus’ ... in this case,” said Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

But that criticism focuses on the one-day news cycle. Here’s our question: Is the RNC debate threat a smart strategic move, in the long term?

After all, as far as the national leaders of both parties are concerned, presidential primary debates have gotten out of hand. There are too many – 20 for the GOP in the 2012 cycle. Formats generally aren’t conducive to discussion. They’re controlled by media outlets, which make money from airing them, and state parties, which make money from co-hosting debates and associated fundraisers.

If Priebus wants to cut the debate schedule to 10 to 12, as recommended by the party’s 2012 postmortem, he’s got to start exerting control over the process in some manner. The “dump the docs” effort may be a way to start to do just that.

By making the “liberal” mainstream media the target, Priebus and the RNC can get hosannas of agreement from pretty much every faction of every state party. Linking it to Mrs. Clinton is a bonus in this context, given that she’s the potential 2016 Democratic candidate Republicans most love to dislike.

And why shouldn’t the party pick where debates appear? Slate political analyst Dave Weigel wrote earlier this month that Republicans should debate one another only on Fox.

“That could be fascinating,” wrote Mr. Weigel. “Republicans know exactly how to handle the mainstream media, and they know how to play against it.... They’re often more compelling when their interviews are pushing them from the right.”

Or what about this: Why get any network involved at all? Today’s broadband technology makes it feasible for Republicans to stage and control debates completely, streaming the show to an online audience à la Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Conservative commentator Edward Morrissey made this point in a column in The Week, saying that if Priebus wants to take serious steps toward reform, he should rethink the entire debate structure.

“CNN responded to Priebus’ ultimatum by rejecting the demand, claiming that a refusal to partner with CNN on debates would be ‘the ultimate disservice to voters.’ The ultimate disservice to both voters and candidates is the artificial, game-show circus that got repeated ad infinitum in 2011 and 2012. Priebus would do us all a favor by looking for an alternative that produces serious political debate rather than the Zinger of the Week,” wrote Mr. Morrissey.


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