The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The RNC has lost its mind on GOP debates

From left, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul take the stage at the start of the Republican presidential debate, hosted by CNN, last month in Las Vegas. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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What happens when you cannot trust the chaperones?

That’s the role in which National Review was initially slotted to participate in a late-February GOP debate in Houston. The idea was to pair National Review with mainstream media partner NBC News and Telemundo. The arrangement shadowed a similar setup for CNN, which has partnered on two GOP debates with Salem Communications and its star conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Fox News and Fox Business Network, meanwhile, have been allowed to moderate their own debates, free of these minders.

Well, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has now decided that National Review is no longer qualified to referee an officially sanctioned GOP debate.

Its offense? Leveraging the First Amendment. In a package posted last night, National Review blasted Trump with a series of pieces questioning all aspects of his rise, ideology, predispositions, etc. “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” writes the magazine in an editorial.

The problem for National Review is that its presentation was well timed and successful. In addition to the editorial, National Review assembled pieces from conservative voices such as Erick Erickson, Glenn Beck, Edwin Meese III and others. Many of the points made in this “Against Trump” grouping have been made before, by conservatives: Trump is an egotist; Trump is not a real conservative; Trump doesn’t know much about terrorism; Trump is a populist, not a conservative; and so on. Yet National Review was wise to put state-of-the-art anti-Trump scholarship under one roof. It has gotten vigorous pickup on social media and beyond. “Trump might be the greatest charlatan of them all,” wrote L. Brent Bozell III in the package.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says the National Review is a 'dying paper' and accuses the magazine of trying to get publicity when it published an editorial criticizing him. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)

It was all a bit much for the RNC. National Review Publisher Jack Fowler wrote in a post Thursday night, “A top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited. The reason: Our ‘Against Trump’ editorial and symposium. We expected this was coming. Small price to pay for speaking the truth about The Donald.”

The greater damage, surely, lands on the RNC itself. Its Houston debate is now an embarrassment of indecision and thought control. Recall that the RNC earlier this month announced that the original broadcast partner, NBC, had been bounced from the event because of the behavior of moderators from CNBC in a widely panned October debate. CNN was handed the prize and would be partnering with National Review, Telemundo and Salem Communications. Now, as it happens, there’s a more manageable trio of debate hosts.

Explaining the disqualification, Sean Spicer of the RNC declared to BuzzFeed that a debate moderator must not have “a predisposition.”

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If so, the RNC had better fire the moderators in charge of the remaining debates and place newborns in their stead. As if Fox News doesn’t have a predisposition (witness its wonderful pursuit of Trump in the Aug. 6 debate); as if Fox Business doesn’t have a predisposition (witness Neil Cavuto’s sly attempt to put the 2008 financial meltdown on President Obama’s shoulders at last week’s event); as if CNN doesn’t have a predisposition (witness its attempts at a Sept. 16 debate to get the candidates brawling among themselves); as if the RNC doesn’t have a predisposition (witness its skittish micromanagement of the debates). Everyone has some predisposition or another.

RNC’s decision surfaces a deep-set ignorance about the role of National Review. Founded by William F. Buckley in 1955, it is one of the most influential opinion journals in American history. Yes, opinion — meaning that its writers have used its pages to advance arguments about ideas and trends and clear dangers, just as the essayists do in “Against Trump.” That this package aims at a fissure within the right over whether Trump is good or bad squares with a tradition in the pages of National Review. As Carl Bogus wrote in his book “Buckley“: “The principal battles and intrigue at National Review that led to redefining conservatism, however, were not between conservatives and liberals. They were among conservatives.”

For fulfilling its mission, in other words, National Review got spanked.