That meant partnering with a conservative news outlet (CNN teaming with Salem Media Group, for example) and featuring a conservative panelist to ask questions (i.e. talk radio host Hugh Hewitt). No more of this liberal-bias baloney.
But the reality of the 2016 Republican presidential debate season has been far less smooth than the vision. The latest hiccup is the RNC’s decision to drop the National Review as co-sponsor of a Feb. 25 debate in Houston — a move brimming with irony, since the magazine is precisely the kind of conservative outfit party leaders insisted on including.
The National Review’s suspendable offense was publishing an editorial and collection of essays by conservative thought leaders arguing against the nomination of front-runner Donald Trump — packaged together in the aptly named “Against Trump” issue.
The RNC-National Review breakup comes less than three months after committee chairman Reince Priebus made a staff change aimed at improving debate negotiations. CNN, Salem and Telemundo are now the surviving sponsors of the rhetorical showdown at the University of Houston, but only Telemundo was part of the original plan. NBC, the initial television partner, got the boot after one of its sister cable channels, CNBC, sponsored and moderated a debate in October that infuriated some Republicans. NBC and the RNC hoped to reconcile, but the party said this week that it would go with CNN and Salem, instead.
Telemundo’s role has been a source of conflict, too, with Trump at one point threatening to boycott the event if the Spanish-language network is involved. (The real estate magnate had a testy, immigration-related exchange with a Telemundo reporter early in the campaign.)
Come to think of it, Trump has threatened to boycott multiple debates, though he’s never followed through. One of his more outlandish claims was that he might not show up unless he received a $5 million appearance fee — which he would donate to charity, of course.
One debate that would have been an unorthodox conservative showcase was scrapped altogether, Politico reported this week. The event never made it onto the official debate calendar, but it would have been held at Liberty University in Virginia, the world’s largest Christian college, shunned mainstream media sponsors and possibly featured conservative commentator Sean Hannity as a moderator.
According to Politico, the RNC canceled “because the logistics of setting up and running this kind of event were simply too overwhelming for the party to handle without the aid of a television network” — an indictment of the committee’s organizational skills but also a reality check that a debate is a major undertaking in which major networks appear likely to play a central role.
If nothing else, the GOP’s pared-down debate schedule might leave its eventual nominee with fewer wounds heading into the general election than Mitt Romney suffered in 2012. Some Republicans believe an overly grueling primary debate calendar contributed to Romney’s defeat against President Obama.
That’s something, I suppose. But the dream of a peaceful, neatly-constructed debate season is already lost.