Officials from both of the major parties desperately hoped to avoid drama over presidential candidates' debates during the 2016 campaign. So far, that's not going well -- by last night, both parties were embroiled in unexpected controversies.
Let's start with Republicans, where the lineup is set for tomorrow night's Fox News debate in Des Moines, Iowa, but the GOP frontrunner, at least for now, doesn't intend to show up.
Donald Trump said Tuesday that he "most likely" will not participate in Thursday night's FOX News-Google debate, citing the participation of "lightweight" Megyn Kelly as well as FOX's "wise-guy" press release poking fun at Trump's rhetoric. [...] After the press conference, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandoski told reporters that the real estate mogul "will not be participating in the Fox debate" and that it is "not under negotiation."
As Rachel noted on the show last night, Trump has made similar threats before, though this one seems far more serious and the language used by his campaign is more categorical.
As the afternoon progressed, Fox responded by mocking Trump and refusing to consider his demands, which only seemed to harden the leading Republican candidate's position.
So now what happens? There's still time for Trump and Fox to work something out -- the GOP frontrunner said he'll only speak with News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch -- so it's probably best not to make any ironclad assumptions. Ted Cruz responded to the news by challenging Trump to a one-on-one debate with no moderator, but that's unlikely to happen, too.
Perhaps the more salient question is what effect a debate boycott would have on Trump's candidacy.
The potential for damage is real. Fox and some of Trump's rivals are effectively accusing him of cowardice, arguing that the frontrunner is afraid of tough questions. It's not an easy sell -- Trump has already participated in five other debates -- but if this gambit rattles confidence in his candidacy with just days remaining before the Iowa caucuses, this may prove to be a serious mistake.
Or maybe it won't. The fact remains that every time Trump has done something dangerous over the course of this campaign, even picking fights with Fox, it's had no effect on his standing. Perhaps Trump's instincts are more in tune with GOP voters' attitudes. Perhaps he's just incredibly lucky. It's become difficult to even guess how Republicans are going to respond to his antics.
It's worth remembering, though, that Trump's gamble is a calculated one: he's winning right now, and participating in a debate in which he spends two hours on the defensive is inherently dangerous. Maybe the hit he'd take from skipping tomorrow night's event would be less than the hit he'd take from the debate itself?
Of course, if Trump follows through and avoids the debate, this decision may very well get more attention than the debate itself.
As for Democrats, who've had months of consternation about the number and timing of their debates, the next gathering for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley is scheduled for Feb. 11 -- after both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The Union Leader newspaper has been pushing to add a debate to the schedule, and yesterday it announced plans to host an unsanctioned debate on Feb. 4, just five days before the primary.
As Rachel explained on the show last night, the paper asked to partner with MSNBC for the event, and the network said Rachel and Chuck Todd would moderate. O'Malley quickly agreed to participate. The Clinton campaign, soon after, said she'd be there "if the other candidates agree." The Sanders campaign, however, hedged, and his communications director told us, "We will be working with the DNC and other campaigns to schedule additional debates," without commenting on the possible Feb. 4 event specifically.
So, will there be an additional Democratic debate next week? I honestly have no idea.