The Republicans Debate Their Debates

GOP campaigns agreed to preliminary demands for how they want future forums to work, but the hard part is still to come.

Mark J. Terrill / AP

The attempt by the Republican presidential candidates to wrest control of the primary debates away from news networks has, so far, mostly succeeded in highlighting internal divisions within the party. Whether it can produce debates that are more to their liking remains to be seen.

On Saturday, the Republican National Committee—fighting a rearguard action to try to blunt the candidates’ revolt—announced it was appointing a new official to head up debate-negotiation with television networks. That came a day after the RNC announced it was calling off a debate with NBC News, essentially in retaliation for CNBC’s handling of a debate.

Then on Sunday, as previously planned, the campaigns met in Alexandria, Virginia, to plot their own demands. That meeting produced a draft letter, which Dave Weigel snagged. Most of the demands involve mechanical questions: Who will ask questions? What will the format be? How long will opening and closing statements be? How warm will the hall be? Will there be props? The letter demands no hand-raising questions, and no yes/no questions without chances to elaborate. Most importantly, it calls for equal time or at least equal questions for each candidate.

These are things that the candidates get upset about; CNBC’s reluctance to allow opening and closing statements nearly led to a boycott. But none of these things really gets at what really riled so many people up: the sense that the questions asked by the CNBC moderators were particularly biased, shallow, or devious. It’s hard to make rules that require the questions to be friendly without either driving off journalists or making the debates look like kangaroo forums. It’s only natural that the candidates don’t want to face especially tough questions, and while they say they want to talk policy, the fact is most of them would (again, understandably) rather stick to simple talking points than get down into the weeds. For evidence, just watch this exchange from the CNBC debate between Ben Carson and Betsy Quick:

One of the few ways to control the questions is to control who’s asking them. The plan going into this debate season was to require networks to partner with conservative media organizations, but candidates have still been upset about the questions. As The Washington Post’s Robert Costa tweeted, the candidates apparently decided they were fine not challenging Fox Business, which is hosting the next debate, but would scrutinize those that came after:

This is perhaps not surprising, but it does strongly suggest that the candidates view Fox as the house organ of the Republican Party—perhaps an awkward situation for the network.

Also at the Sunday meeting, aides to Jeb Bush—who has strong ties to the Florida Hispanic establishment and speaks Spanish—reportedly pushed to reinstitute a partnership with Telemundo, the Miami-based Spanish-language broadcaster working with NBC News on the now-canceled debate. But Donald Trump’s campaign steadfastly refused. These sorts of arguments point to the problem with the candidates taking over the debate process: While they have many issues about which they agree, their political interests are ultimately at odds and it’s a zero-sum situation. Weigel reports that the candidates didn’t think the first draft letter went far enough and intended to tack on more demands. But will they be able to agree to more, having already listed so many of the mutually agreeable matters?

And even if the candidates manage to achieve a rough consensus, will the networks go along? On the one hand, they are reluctant to hand too much editorial control over to the candidates and party. On the other hand, the candidates and the party are holding a much stronger hand. The debates so far have produced enormous, record-setting ratings, which they covet, and Brian Stelter reported that 30-second ads during the CNBC debate were going for $250,000—money that’s hard to pass up.

If they balk, the candidates can also just go online. In an age of cord-cutting, a surprising number of people were upset that they couldn’t watch the CNBC debate unless they were cable subscribers. Ben Carson’s campaign has made one of the most interesting suggestions of the debate revolt so far: His aides say that if the networks won’t agree to their demands, Republicans should just stream the debates themselves online. If that happened, it would likely be the biggest shift in presidential debates since the Federal Communications Commission allowed networks to begin sponsoring debates more than 30 years ago.