A draft letter is circulating among the GOP campaigns that lays down conditions for the TV networks to follow in order to ensure Republican participation in future debates. The letter, authored by top GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg, reflects the concerns that were raised at last night’s meeting of GOP campaigns, in the wake of widespread conservative and Republican criticism of the CNBC debate moderators for asking the candidates questions they found objectionable.

It’s not clear yet whether the GOP campaigns will sign off on the letter. But, read as a document that is meant to reflect Republican anger over the CNBC debate, its goals are striking: they appear designed in part to limit the debates’ capacity for creating unflattering moments that might arise in response to tough but thoroughly defensible modes of questioning.

Some of the conditions the document outlines address routine concerns about physical comfort and staging: it asks the networks to commit to keeping debate halls below 67 degrees; to avoid shots of empty podiums; to detail how long opening and closing statements will be allotted; and so forth.

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But some of the items appear to cross over into asking networks to place pre-agreed-upon limits on the modes of questioning they will employ. For instance:

Will you commit that you will not:
— Ask the candidates to raise their hands to answer a question
— Ask yes/no questions without time to provide a substantive answer

The first of those seems designed to head off not the kind of “insulting” questions that Republicans complained of at the CNBC debate, but rather the kind of debate moment that may have harmed Republicans in 2012. Remember when all the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they were prepared to walk away from a deal that offered 10-to-one in spending cuts to tax increased?

A similar raise-your-hand moment came earlier this year, too, when the GOP candidates were all asked whether they’d pledge to support the GOP nominee rather than run a third-party candidate. Interestingly, both of these raise-your-hands questions were asked not by a liberal saboteur hell-bent on destroying the GOP and its eventual nominee, but by Fox News’ Bret Baier.

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Meanwhile, it’s true that yes/no questions that don’t afford an opportunity for substantive follow-up can sometimes obscure more than they illuminate. But sometimes pinning down candidates in this fashion can be useful, and at any rate, this is hardly an illegitimate mode of questioning. Are Republicans really going to place the networks on notice that they must pre-commit to refraining from it?

Then there’s this:

Will you commit to provide equal time/an equal number of questions of equal quality (substance as opposed to “gotcha” or frivolous) to each candidate?

The problem here is that opinions may vary on what constitutes a “gotcha” or “frivolous” question, and those dismissing questions as unworthy in this fashion may not always be motivated by a lofty and principled desire to elevate the quality of our discourse. For instance, at the CNBC debate, Marco Rubio unloaded a mighty barrage of outrage towards the moderators when he was asked about his problems managing his personal and campaign finances. Rubio swatted away the query as a “litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents,” which would appear to mean he thinks it was a frivolous gotcha. Does that mean Republicans really will expect news orgs to pre-commit to not ask this kind of question?

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Similarly, at the CNBC debate, Ted Cruz elicited great roars of approval when he tore into the moderators by pointing out that the questions they’d asked up to that point “illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” Cruz demanded that the moderators instead talk about “substantive issues.” But if you look at a list of the questions that had actually been asked up to that point, some of them probed Donald Trump’s immigration policies; Ben Carson’s and Carly Fiorina’s tax plans; Fiorina’s business background; Rubio’s missed votes and his gyrations on immigration (which even conservatives criticize); and former Republican fed chair Ben Bernanke’s criticism of what has become of today’s GOP.

As Brian Beutler has shown, even if it’s true that parts of the debate were unruly and uncontrolled, it’s also true that overall, a lot of the questions at the CNBC debate were quite substantive. Given the broad-brush nature of Republican criticism of the moderators’ questions, this document basically demands that the networks commit in advance not to ask questions that the Republican candidates may choose to describe as frivolous gotchas, for less-than-noble purposes. How is that supposed to work, exactly?

It’s hard to see how any self-respecting news organizations could ever make any such conditional pledges. And it seems reasonable to suspect that some of these conditions are not designed to be acceptable to them in the first place.

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