Republicans aren’t unified about much lately, but they have found two familiar rallying points: disdain for the media and Hillary Clinton. The Republican National Committee voted unanimously to refuse to partner with CNN and NBC on primary debates in 2016 unless they cancel planned programming on the former secretary of state. Nevermind that the RNC doesn’t actually sponsor or partner on debates. The wholly symbolic move makes Clinton a clear winner. The RNC, on the other hand, is likely shooting itself in the foot.
No one knows if the documentary planned by CNN and the mini-series planned by NBC Entertainment will be “extended commercials promoting former Secretary Hillary Clinton,” because they haven’t been made yet, and the latter doesn’t even have a script. (Also, the New York Times reported that Fox’s production company may make the Clinton film with NBC, though Fox News isn’t included in the resolution.) Perhaps RNC Chairman Reince Priebus hopes to “put a thumb on the scales,” to borrow text from his resolution, and encourage the films to add material portraying Clinton in an unfavorable light in an attempt to be objective. On the other hand, since neither NBC Entertainment (separate from NBC News and NBC, but owned by the same corporate parent) nor CNN has indicated they’ll cancel the airing of films, what do they have to lose in making it however they please?
For now, this anti-media, anti-Clinton gambit must look great to Republicans. They have mostly changed the subject from their party’s malaise and portrayed themselves as the underdogs against big media, and they can raise money off it. But it’s an awfully short-term tactic.
Indeed, the weirdest presumption in the resolution is that Republicans were damaged by the debates because of the major-network moderators. But the kind of commentary that helped Democrats successfully build a case against them in the national and key Senate election had very little to do with primary moderator questions. It had everything to do with their own positions and how they expressed them.
The most damning quotes were usually ones the Republican candidates made when they were with people they felt comfortable with. Mitt Romney made his notorious 47% comments in front of an audience of fellow wealthy people, though he apparently didn’t realize he was being recorded. Rick Santorum spouted off on birth control to a fellow social conservative blogger, and then stuck around long enough to keep it on the agenda for everyone else. Michele Bachmann was only too happy to talk about the HPV vaccine causing “mental retardation” in a post-debate interview on Fox News. Todd Akin was talking to a local news reporter. Only Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s comments that pregnancy from rape is something “God intended to happen” took place in a debate, and it wasn’t on a major network.
Most of these comments and positions aren’t controversial to Republican primary voters, which is partly why the candidates made them and said them. The problem was appealing to anyone else. That is still the problem, no matter how many times the RNC wants to blame the messenger. Which is why Priebus talking favorably about having right-wing media figures like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh moderate the debates is so absurd. Limbaugh (who dismissed the idea by saying he’s “too famous”) was the one who spent day after day on his radio show spouting off on how a young woman who wanted to testify before Congress was a slut, which did nothing but cost him advertisers and raise money for Democrats. Would questions hand-picked by conservatives prevent questions that had answers containing the phrase “self-deportation,” which Priebus himself just today condemned? Would they prevent the audience from booing at a question posed by a gay soldier? For the GOP, right-wing media is part of the problem, not the solution.
In the meantime, the person who must be sitting back and having a laugh about all this frenzy must be Hillary Clinton herself. Whether or not she runs–and there’s little reason right now to think she won’t–the right looks utterly terrified by anyone even talking about her. And with no other frontrunner like Barack Obama having emerged to compete for the mantle of transformative pathbreaker and Clinton not even having declared she’ll run, a conservative campaign against a mere movie about her just risks looking like more sexism from the party, or at the very least sour grapes. And all she has to do is let them talk amongst themselves.