Before the presidential race even began, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus made no secret of his concerns about candidate debates. Priebus and his team, unhappy with the way the debate process unfolded in 2011 and 2012, invested quite a bit of time and energy in overhauling the party’s entire debate model, sweating the details over locations, networks, and moderators.
The RNC’s planning failed spectacularly. In the wake of three prime-time events, much of the party is furious with the debate structure, to the point that a campaign-led revolt – unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era – is starting to take shape. MSNBC’s Alex Jaffe highlighted the latest developments last night:
Republican campaigns agreed to take a larger role in negotiating the parameters of the upcoming presidential debates and largely cut the Republican National Committee out of the process during an unprecedented meeting of advisors for all but one campaign on Sunday night.
There was some discussion in advance of last night’s gathering that the deliberations would lead to an entirely new, campaign-driven debate process, but that does not appear to be the case, at least not yet. Indeed, as Alex Jaffe’s report added, “[A]side from the agreement to take a greater role in the process, little consensus on specific details came out of the meeting.”
This doesn’t come as too big of a surprise. Fifteen Republicans are vying for their party’s presidential nomination, and each has very different expectations and goals when it comes to the debates. The odds of them agreeing to a series of specific, broadly applicable changes aren’t good.
That said, a template for changes is taking shape.
* Duration: The campaigns agree that future debates should last no longer than two hours.
* Openings/closings: Candidates will expect time for opening and closing statements.
* On-screen graphics: Networks will be expected to get approval from campaigns for the text of on-screen graphics identifying the candidates and their backgrounds.
* Fox: The Washington Post reported that the campaigns “reached an early consensus” that, no matter what, Fox News’ position in the process would be “secure.”
* NBC/Telemundo: The Republican National Committee has already suspended a February debate to be hosted by NBC/Telemundo. Jeb Bush’s team wants it to be reinstated; Donald Trump’s team said the New York developer will boycott the event if it’s held.
* Kids-table debates: The candidates with the weakest poll support are tired of being relegated to undercard gatherings that go largely unwatched. There’s no agreement, however, on what to do about it.
As it turns out, the debate over debates will continue, and the Washington Post’s piece added that the campaigns intend to issue a joint letter to networks by Tuesday: “It will list what the campaigns want for the upcoming debates and was agreed to before the meeting ended. Campaigns will have Monday to review it a final time and formally sign off.”
For his part, Priebus, who was not invited to last night’s gathering, is still scrambling to stay in the campaigns’ good graces. In addition to suspending the NBC/Telemundo debate, the RNC has assigned Chief Operating Officer Sean Cairncross to oversee future debate negotiations for the party.
Whether such moves satisfy the campaigns, many of which hold Priebus responsible for debates the candidates don’t like, is not yet clear.
Finally, it’s important to appreciate Ben Carson’s role in pushing for changes: by most accounts, it’s his campaign that took the lead in organizing last night’s meeting, and few have been as outspoken in condemning the debates as the right-wing retired neurosurgeon.
As for what Carson, a first-time candidate, actually wants from the events, consider this exchange from yesterday between the candidate and ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
CARSON: Well I think we should have moderators who are interested in disseminating the information about the candidates, as opposed to, you know, ‘gotcha’ ‘you did this’ and ‘defend yourself on that.’ […]RADDATZ: Dr. Carson, you talk about ‘gotcha’ questions, but shouldn’t the candidates be challenged? Don’t you want to hear what they have to say and have that challenged by a free press?CARSON: There’s a place and time for that, but as far as I’m concerned, these debates are to highlight the differences in philosophy between the candidates.
It sometimes seems as if Carson wants debates with less debating.