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:
Per more sources in room, the group has decided to lay off Fox, put them in sep category as the camps move fwd. Kasich team pushed for this.— Robert Costa (@costareports) November 1, 2015
In essence, there is fury about press but camps here are deciding to treat Fox differently moving fwd. More scrutiny for other outlets.— Robert Costa (@costareports) November 1, 2015
"People are afraid to make Roger mad." Quote of the night, via text, from a source participating in the mtg.— Robert Costa (@costareports) November 2, 2015
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.