Last week’s effort by CNBC to host and moderate a presidential debate was an unmitigated disaster. Voters were no better off after the debate than before and it exposed the biases existing in political media.
In case you missed it, the debate was originally touted as one that would focus on economic policy — tax plans, Federal Reserve policy, regulations, etc. But it turned out to be an apparent effort by the debate moderators to further exacerbate this reality TV-style fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
For some, it confirmed a lot of suspicions that the media is out to get Republicans. For others, it confirmed Republicans and conservatives will whine about the media regardless of the circumstances.
In a show of defiance after the debate, representatives from a handful of the Republican presidential campaigns met in private last weekend to discuss ways avoid a repeat of the mistakes of prior debates, including this one. They decided it’s time to structure debates differently. How to do so and what that entails has yet to be determined.
It may sound like sour grapes coming from Republicans, but they have a legitimate gripe.
In the 2012 election cycle, while the Democrats had their candidate with incumbent President Barack Obama, a crowded Republican field created something akin to a circular firing squad, bloodying up the entire slate of candidates.
Ultimately, the last man standing was former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Massachusetts), who faced an uphill battle against an incumbent, and could not rally a Republican base that had had its enthusiasm zapped in the brutal fight for the party’s nomination.
Back in 2007, as the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination was evolving, then-Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards vowed to boycott a presidential debate co-sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and Fox News.
At the time, candidates were under pressure from a liberal group called MoveOn.org to not participate in that debate. This led to its eventual cancellation.
There wasn’t as much hand-wringing over the precedent it would set for the relationship between the media and the candidates. It didn’t have disaster consequences for the First Amendment and the role of the Fourth Estate in our democracy.
People moved on. The Democrats nominated their candidate. He went on to become president, and that’s how it should be.
It only took the Grand Old Party eight years to learn playing nice with media isn’t necessarily in the best interest of efforts to achieve electoral success.
Last Wednesday’s debate was a turning point.
We undoubtedly have a balkanized media culture, but that just means there is something for everyone. We’re at a point in our media where we have myriad choices, be it 10 different national cable news channels, thousands of political websites or hundreds of spoken-word radio stations focusing on politics.
Things have changed over the last three decades. Therefore, the way we determine how presidential races are covered should change as well.
The setting with a moderator or a panel of moderators, operating under the guise of impartiality, pressing candidates on questions is an outdated model.
It is irrelevant to the majority of Republican voters which candidate has the best global warming policy or which is the strongest on LGBT rights. For Democratic voters, they probably couldn’t care less about hearing which candidate is going to do their best to protect religious liberty or do the most to secure America’s southern border.
Since we have so many options and so many media personalities compared to what the public had access to during the previous election contests, why wouldn’t the two party apparatuses set up a nominating process that is custom made for their base voters, with more like-minded people asking questions?
It’s certainly a fair criticism to say that if a candidate can’t handle Megyn Kelly, then why should he or she be president? But it’s not the purpose of these presidential debates to serve as a litmus test for a candidate’s personality.
We’ve now had three Republican debates and one Democratic debate. Can anyone point to what we know now compared to what we knew prior to those debates, and whether we’re any better off?
Chalk this up to the era of reality television. We have a celebrity-driven electorate for the time being, and while that’s the case each of the TV networks is going to do all they can to get as many viewers to tune in as possible, even if that means trying to manufacture tensions between the contest’s front-runner, Donald Trump, and any of the other candidates.
If we’re going to have the media play a big role in the presidential cycle, there ought to be a more ideological approach taken by each side when choosing the moderators. Unless you’re one of these types that dabbles in political masochism, there is really no purpose in watching a panel of liberals harangue the dozen or so Republican candidates or vice-versa, having a panel of right-wing firebrands go after the Democratic candidates.
Once all the dust clears and we have two candidates from each party, then we can have the discussion about achieving impartiality in the media.
In the meantime, it’s 2015. Why are we still operating under 1980s-era debate rules?
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