GOP Campaigns Break with Party Leadership to Lobby for Debate Format Changes


The Republican presidential campaigns have agreed to pursue direct negotiations with the television networks regarding the guidelines for the balance of the primary debates, circumventing the Republican National Committee. Representatives from at least a dozen campaigns who met for close to two hours in Suburban Washington Sunday , came to a consensus regarding several debate format changes which are to be stipulated in  a letter to the debate hosts within the next few days. The catalyst for this meeting was the October 28 CNBC Debate, which was widely panned by representatives of both the right and left for the moderators’ blatant bias and rudeness to the candidates.

Initially billed as a forum dedicated to substantive financial and economic issues, the CNBC debate quickly lapsed into a free for all where the three moderatorsJohn Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla badgered and patronized the ten candidates with mean-spirit questions, frequent interruptions and talk overs. All of which had the end result of the moderators losing control of the forum that they were charged with moderating. The candidates’  “break away”  approach is underway despite the fact that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus officially pulled out of the upcoming February 26 Debate on NBC News. In his letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, he cited CNBC’s, which is an NBC Universal property, “handling of the debate in bad faith” as the reason for severing the partnership with NBC News and its media properties.

Interestingly enough, President Obama dismissed the GOP’s complaints about the CNBC moderators. “If you can’t handle those guys, he remarked, “ I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you”.

Obviously candidates for the presidency are expected to be prepared to answer tough questions. However, the CNBC Debate’s line of questioning was hostile in tone and delivered in a manner which was demeaning to the  candidates standing on the dais, starting with moderator John Harwood’s first question to real-estate magnate Donald Trump.  After citing some of Trump’s policy proposals, Harwood said  “Let’s be honest. Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”  And the evening just went downhill from there.  Ironically the conduct of the moderators created a bond between the candidates.  One of the evening’s memorable moments occurred when Senator Ted Cruz responded to a question about national debt by saying “This is not a cage match,” Cruz said. “Look at the questions: ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”

Speaking at the Iowa  GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Party in Des Moines Ted Cruz commented that the CNBC moderators were “left wing operatives” who were trying to weaken Republican presidential candidates.  Cruz proposed that future Republican debates be hosted by moderators who have voted in the Republican primary once in their lives. The idea behind this is that the moderators would be providing a debate which would help conservatives decide “who’s going to be the best and strongest conservative to represent (conservatives) and win” in the primary election. Cruz further suggested that the debate be hosted by conservative journalists and radio hosts such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.

Senator Cruz has made a valid point. The purpose of a primary debate is to provide a forum for the candidates of a particular party to demonstrate their ability to be the representative of the party’s people. This means that the debate should include questions which allow the candidates to demonstrate how they will uphold the principles of the party and also tackle the issues that the party’s voters care about. The primary debate is also supposed to be a vehicle for the candidates to highlight their capabilities and make their case to the American people that they would be the right choice to run against the opposing party candidate in the general election. However, if the moderators have an inherent bias, their participation in the debates does a disservice to the primary candidates and ultimately the American voters.

The GOP candidates’ motivation to negotiate directly with the networks clearly shows their frustration with how the last three debates were executed from  the duration of the event, the conduct of the moderators, the selection and tone of the questions, the time allocated to the candidates and the temperature in the room. It also shows that they do not perceive the RNC as doing enough to address the flaws in the debate delivery.  It is clear that someone needs to take charge to ensure that checks and balances are implemented to protect the presidential candidates from media bias and to provide the American people with a meaningful forum which truly showcases each candidate.  A year from now, the American people will elect their next president. We deserve informative, substantive candidate debates where the candidates are asked tough questions, but are treated with respect.