Candidate mutiny: Has GOP reached turning point on debates?

Candidates are frustrated with both the networks and the Republican National Committee over the terms of debates, which are drawing huge audiences.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Members of the audience listen to Republican presidential candidates participate in the 2016 GOP presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colo. on Oct. 28, 2015. These debates are drawing huge audiences, but candidates are not pleased with the deal negotiated between the networks and the Republican National Committee.

Are presidential primary debates going to look very different in election cycles to come?

That’s a bigger question underlying today’s uproar among GOP candidates about the format and control of the current primary debate system.

On Sunday, representatives from more than a dozen Republican presidential campaigns met in suburban Washington and agreed to demand modest changes from debate hosts. They include more direct coordination between networks and candidates, mandatory opening and closing statements, an equal number of questions for candidates, and preapproval of onscreen graphics, according to Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett.

In general, the campaigns say they are frustrated with both the networks and the Republican National Committee, which negotiated the existing debate lineup. That’s pushed political competitors into some agreement on the subject.

“The amazing part for me was how friendly the meeting was,” said Mr. Bennett, noting it was held in a room marked “family meeting."

But the ad hoc conference, held in the wake of the chaotic CNBC debate last week, did not result in agreement on more drastic demands, such as an elimination of the split system in which low-polling contenders appear in an “undercard” debate, or preapproval of moderators.

That’s because different candidates have different motivations. Low-ranking contenders want the “undercard” eliminated. Polling leaders such as Donald Trump want fewer candidates, not more, on stage. Candidates who have done well bashing the media, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are suggesting that only conservative commentators serve as moderators. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wants to reschedule the suspended February debate that includes Spanish-language Univision as a partner. Trump and others don’t want that to happen.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie added on Monday that he doesn’t believe the campaigns should control the debates at all.

“What comes through most clearly is that despite the joint meeting and the decision by the campaigns to retain Republican super-lawyer Ben Ginsberg to represent them in issuing demands to the television networks, their complaints are not necessarily compatible,” writes Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s left-leaning "Political Animal" blog.

But these complaints surfaced now in part because the role debates play in the primary process appears to have shifted. They’ve become more important, drawing huge audiences that are records for non-sports cable programming. Candidates who shine (Carly Fiorina) get an immediate boost. Those who don’t do well (Jeb Bush) drift downwards in the polls.

It now appears possible to run a national campaign based largely on debates and other televised appearances. That’s let Donald Trump do much of his “campaigning” from the comfy confines of Trump Tower.

Given that, it shouldn’t be surprising that candidates want more control over a show where they’re the stars. Yet there are limits to what the networks will cede. Debates are news division shows, not entertainment. Journalists will push back.

“If networks had integrity, they would refuse to host or air any debate in which candidates dictated terms. Period,” tweeted author and former Washington Post political reporter David Maraniss on Monday.

Thus the question: Will candidates of either party eventually decide to group together and produce these big shows themselves?

Carson campaign manager Bennett suggested as much prior to Sunday’s meeting.

“I think we can look beyond television partnerships,” he said. “Facebook and Twitter and Google and YouTube – they would all host the debate. They would all provide the media feed to every television broadcaster in America. It is 2015, and not 1980.”

Indeed. This may be the only way for the candidates to get what they want. And in a world where individual conservative personalities such as Glenn Beck can quit Fox News and found their own web networks, why can’t the Republican and Democratic Parties?

“That’s a big idea, and one that will likely become reality someday. But not now,” concludes right-leaning Washington Examiner pundit Byron York.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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