Less Debates? Yes, Please!

Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich

Republican presidential candidates during one of many debates that were
part of the 2012 campaign.
Flickr photo credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool

Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus made news this past week when he threatened to prevent NBC and CNN from hosting any Republican presidential primary debates in 2016 if they refuse to cancel planned Hillary Clinton-themed projects.  As he said on the MSNBC program Morning Joe, “I cannot have companies that are in the business of making what I consider to be promotional movies about the life of Hillary Clinton . . . depose the candidates for president on the Republican side of the aisle”  Take that, mainstream media!

I’m not going to attempt to suggest that the people at NBC and CNN aren’t dying for Hillary to run in 2016.  I mean, just imagine a primary race in which Joe Biden is the presumptive frontrunner: it might provide plenty of fodder for comedians, but it wouldn’t do much to capture the public’s imagination.  The Clintons, on the other hand, have true star power.  Even the producers at Fox News must be secretly hoping for her to run so that they can reap the benefits of an anti-Hillary campaign.  

However, I don’t know that the planned NBC miniseries and CNN documentary are simply meant to give Clinton a boost in support. (It’s a little hard to judge something before it’s been finished, let alone viewed by an audience.) I’m guessing they both would settle for a simple ratings victory over their competitors, and given the controversy that has already developed around these projects, the numbers could potentially be massive.  As for whether these presentations would help or hurt Hillary’s chances of getting elected, I suspect that many Americans already have an established opinion about her, and the undoubted negative ad blitz that will come when she decides to run should cancel out any positive effects.

I can also see why Priebus and others may question how unbiased reporters at these channels are.  Over the past half decade or so, MSNBC has rapidly evolved into a liberal version of Fox News, following the same model but targeting a different audience.  At times, that bias can seep into NBC News itself, although I personally find Chuck Todd and David Gregory to be mostly fair.  I understand why Republicans would feel uncomfortable having an intra-party debate moderated by anchors who are clearly not conservative, despite the fact that taking some opposing questions could help to show which candidates are better suited for a general election campaign.

The attack on CNN seems a bit further off the mark.  In general, I have found it to be the least partisan of the three main cable news networks here in the U.S.   Of course, that’s not hard to achieve when you spend most of your time covering the latest sensational murder case rather than complicated public policy issues.  Still, this summer has shown that CNN does well with viewers when there is major breaking news, which suggests that Americans go there when they want facts and not commentary. (Well, for the most part Americans go to the internet, but CNN has that covered too: they’re excellent at reporting viewers’ online ramblings.)


RNC Chairman Priebus takes media bias seriously.
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Whether or not Priebus is right to criticize these two channels, I find his threat to be less than threatening.  Less pre-primary debates?  Yes, that sounds lovely.  For the 2011-2012 Republican presidential primaries, there was a total of twenty official debates, the first of which occurred seven months before the Iowa caucuses.  (Why Iowa always gets to go first is the subject of another rant…)  This does not count candidate forums, which also occurred many times.

There was already a debate over how many debates Republican candidates should have before the Hillary projects became an issue.  Analysts such as Karl Rove felt that the drawn out primary process hurt eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and it certainly tested the endurance of even the most hardened political junkies.

Most Americans I come in contact with would be perfectly happy if the campaign season was shortened, and they don’t have time to squeeze 20+ debates into their busy schedules.  So if the GOP does steer clear of CNN and NBC in 2016 and this results in less debates overall, I don’t think the voters will be at all disappointed.

The focus on these two channels did make me wonder how the debate process might be different if one or two media outlets were taken out of the equation.  In 2012, CNN actually hosted the most Republican debates with a total of seven.  Fox News came in second with five debates, while MSNBC and NBC News came in third with just three debates.  If you count one debate hosted by CNBC, that would bring NBC’s total to four, but it’s unclear how opposed the GOP is to this more business-friendly sister channel.  These figures indicate that getting rid of all debates involving CNN or NBC would limit both the number of candidate match-ups and the volume of questions being asked.

Several of the 2012 debates had co-sponsors, and who these organizations chose to work with was rather interesting.  It turns out that the Tea Party Express, Heritage Foundation, and American Enterprise Institute (all of which are quite conservative) chose to partner with CNN.  I don’t know if they could have gone with Fox News instead, but this is nonetheless an interesting observation.  If these groups are not bothered by CNN moderating a Republican debate, then that might suggest that Priebus’ concerns are not well founded.  However, it is also worth noting that no Hillary Clinton documentary had been announced back in 2011.

I thought that Republican strategist Chip Saltsman summed things up pretty well when he appeared this morning on Fox News Sunday.

Do I think there’s going to be a lot of effect? Do I think NBC is all of a sudden going to pull their Hillary Clinton miniseries? No. I actually think it’s good fund raising on both sides too.

Naturally, I would never suspect the head of the Republican National Committee – whose main job is to fund raise for the party – of stoking a controversy purely to bring in more donations from satisfied supporters.  That would be incredibly cynical.  Neither would I suggest that NBC and CNN are doing the same thing in order to increase their advertising revenue. (Oh, wait – I guess I already did.) After all, this isn’t some kind of cheap entertainment we’re talking about: this is politics.

Author’s Note (08/12/13): A reader has mentioned that the title of this post should be “Fewer Debates?” rather than “Less Debates?”.  I do value correct grammar, and while I allow myself to break style rules occasionally when not writing on a professional or academic level, my hope is that this site will adhere as much as possible to correct English.  I checked out an article on the New York Times website, and their style book indicates that there is some ambiguity involving the use of “less” vs. “fewer”.  Apparently, if the individual components are most important, “fewer” is the preferred word; but if the total volume is what the author had in mind, “less” is a suitable alternative.  Thus, I have decided not to change the title of this post pending further proof of grammatical error.  Still, I want to thank the reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, for their efforts to improve this site.  I welcome such comments.

One thought on “Less Debates? Yes, Please!

  1. Fewer sounds best to me, also, however this is an often abused rule, so I’ll let you get by with this one, Amy. After all you must bow to your masses of readers.
    I must qualify as a “hardened political junkie,” as I watched every single debate, front to back, believing it important to see and hear for myself, rather than rely on the sound bites and biased commentary that happens afterward. Incidentally I picked Romney early on in the process. He won all but one, in my view.
    Reince Priebus is right on. The presentations (I refuse to call them debates) on NBC were purposely directed so as to show the Republican candidates in the least favorable light. Their only value was to, as you pointed out, show how the candidates would respond to a hostile press in a general election campaign.

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