For the past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of fretful reporting about a threat by Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus to ban CNN and MSNBC from the GOP primary debate schedule. Priebus is disturbed by currently non-existent projects about Hillary Clinton that he is certain will characterize her favorably.
Today Priebus made good on his threat by shepherding a resolution though the RNC’s annual meeting that declares that they “will neither partner with these networks in the 2016 presidential primary debates nor sanction any primary debates they sponsor.”
Fun Fact: How many GOP primary debates did the RNC sponsor in 2012?
There were twenty debates held and not a single one was sponsored by the RNC. However, every debate on Fox News was sponsored by a state Republican Party affiliate. Also notable is that MSNBC held a debate co-sponsored by the Reagan Library, and CNN held debates co-sponsored by Tea Party Express, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute.
There is, however, a small problem with the Priebus declaration. The RNC has no power whatsoever to prohibit any debate by an network. Sure, they can pass resolutions that make grandiose claims to authority that they don’t have, but reality trumps their hubris. The truth is that any network can announce its intention to produce a debate. They can invite candidates to participate. The candidates are free to accept or reject any offer as they see fit. Chances are, the second and third tier candidates will accept virtually any opportunity to promote themselves on national television. Subsequently, the frontrunners will be reluctant to let their competitors have the stage to themselves. So the debates will go on with a full cast of characters.
Priebus’ threat, therefore, is an impotent cry for attention. He is not empowered to force his will on the people who are vying to be the next leader of the free world. In a best case scenario he may be able to influence the number of debates, which is a goal he has previously articulated. After all, it is fairly obvious that the more Republican candidates are exposed to the American people, the more they will embarrass themselves, and the more votes they will lose. The GOP has a distinct interest in limiting their exposure, and that is what Priebus is aiming for.
The hypocrisy of Priebus’ resolution is apparent in the fact that he is only nixing CNN and MSNBC, even though there have been reports that Fox may be producing the NBC project. Priebus cannot extend his toothless ban to Fox or there would be no cable news networks available to host a GOP debate. But there is no reasonable explanation for why Fox would be given a pass (other than their role as the GOP PR division).
Fun Fact: What do you get when you remove the vowels from Reince Priebus’ name?
Answer: RNC PR BS
The full text of the resolution cites campaign donations by the head of NBC’s entertainment division to Hillary Clinton, but the head of Fox News’ parent corporation has done likewise. Also, the News Corp political PAC, News America Holdings, has given more to Democrats than Republicans in each of the last four election cycles. So if producing Clinton documentaries and donating to her campaign warrant prohibition as debate hosts, then Fox clearly qualifies.
Finally, there have been recent calls for the RNC to recruit right-wing loyalists as moderators for their debates. The names mentioned most frequently include Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. In response, Levin has said that he is ready and willing, despite the fact that he has previously said that he will do whatever he can to prevent Chris Christie from becoming the GOP nominee. As for Limbaugh, he told his radio dittoheads that he is “too famous” and would “overshadow” the candidates. That’s a telling remark in itself, as it demonstrates just how diminutive is the stature of the GOP field. Perhaps the GOP should nominate Limbaugh.
This tussle could not be better for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. If the RNC is successful in limiting the number of their debates it will have effectively cut off millions of Americans from learning about their candidates (although, as noted above, that might a good thing for the GOP). But even worse is the prospect of debates led by staunchly conservative radio talk show hosts. Priebus and company think that friendly moderators will help avoid the antagonistic questioning that he presumes would occur on other networks. But to the extent that that is true, it will also result in the candidates being woefully unprepared for the full-contact combat they will eventually encounter in the general election. What’s more, the rightist Taliban, as represented by Limbaugh et al, will be more likely to force candidates to stake out extreme positions which they will be unable to “Etch-a-Sketch” away after the primaries. The wingnut media are notoriously committed to the sort of ideological purity that voters find repugnant.
So if the RNC wants to proceed with this self-defeating initiative, they will have the full support and cooperation of their pals at the DNC. Nothing would please Democrats more than Republicans digging themselves ever deeper holes of extremism. The outrageous statements and gaffes that occur at the “official” RNC events would still be broadcast on the other networks afterwards. So Priebus’ efforts to limit the damage would be futile, and even counterproductive. As would his admonition that disobedience “may include severe penalties for candidates that participate in unsanctioned debates.” That’s right – Priebus plans on giving the reprobates a good spanking. Wouldn’t that look great on a candidates permanent record?