GOP's lame debate ban is doomed to fail

If it blocks CNN and NBC, how will GOP blame the liberal media when its candidates say outrageous things to Fox?

Published August 21, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013.      (AP/Chris Carlson)
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013. (AP/Chris Carlson)

During the last Democratic presidential primary, now over half a decade behind us, the leading candidates heeded the wishes of party activists, boxed Fox News out of the debate process, and went on to win the general election in a landslide.

If correlation implied causation this would be excellent news for the GOP, which is planning to box "liberal media" -- so far, this means CNN and NBC -- out of the debates in the 2016 primary.

But correlation does not imply causation. So here's some unsolicited advice, for which I'll await a thank you note from RNC chairman Reince Priebus: You're making a mistake.

In 2007 and 2008, Democrats didn't have a "gaffe" problem, or, more precisely, an "extraordinarily unpopular agenda" problem. They weren't hiding from Fox News because they feared that the network's anchors might trip Democratic candidates into revealing the dark underbelly of the party platform. They just didn't like or trust Fox News, and didn't want to lend the network's claims to neutrality any legitimacy. And if that were the GOP's genuine concern about CNN and NBC, I'd say more power to them.

But it's not. Republicans have actually been pretty candid about the fact that the CNN and NBC boycotts are really about controlling the primary debates -- to avoid repeating the politically damaging clown show the party toured the country with in 2012. They want fewer debates and not just neutral but ideally "friendly" hosts.

In other words, they're letting the GOP autopsy's warning about primary debates come into conflict with its warning against epistemic closure, and instead of reducing the number of debates indiscriminately, they're now for reducing them by trying to limit them to conservative venues.

I think this is an error, and not just because I enjoyed the clown show. Supporters of the boycott are forgetting three connected certainties:

1) Republican candidates will eventually say controversial things regardless of the venue.

2) They're actually more likely to slip up in revealing ways if they become lulled into complacency by the comfort of their natural allies.

3) Freezing out the supposedly "liberal media" will make their attempts to blame said liberal media for their problems much less persuasive to both swing voters and the media refs they're trying to work. (Republicans are particularly fond of blaming their debate problems on moderators with supposedly ulterior motives. That excuse will disappear.)

It's true that Mitt Romney unleashed the term "self-deportation" on himself and his party at a debate co-hosted by NBC News. But it wasn't a response to a trick question, and the question itself came from Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, which also co-hosted the event.

By contrast, the Romney answer below, which both helped doom conservative favorite Rick Perry and didn't do anything to help his cause with Hispanic voters, came during a Fox News debate.

I don't see how it is that a state like Texas -- to go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That's $22,000 a year.

Four years of college, almost $100,000 discount if you are an illegal alien go to the University of Texas. If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn't make sense to me. And that kind of magnet --

That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense. We have to have -- just as Speaker Gingrich said, and as Michele Bachmann said as well, Congresswoman Bachmann, and that is we have to have a fence, we have to have enough Border Patrol agents to secure the fence, we have to have a system like E-Verify that employers can use to identify who is here legally and illegally.

We have to crackdown on employers that hire people that are here illegally. And we have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits like a $100,000 tax credit -- or, excuse me, discount for going to the University of Texas. That shouldn't be allowed. It makes no sense at all.

Romney declared that "corporations are people" to a heckler, and some of his other most damning remarks -- including "I was a severely conservative Republican governor" and the damning "47 percent" comments -- were delivered sua sponte to rooms full of conservatives.

Ultimately, I predict this episode will be a minor footnote in the 2016 campaign, and the RNC's decision won't affect the outcome of either the primary or general election. But I think it reflects a genuine misunderstanding both of how information travels in the modern era, and how toxic lowest-common-denominator views on the right really are. Keeping mainstream and liberal networks in the mix will provide a modest counterweight to the inherent temptation to pander in that direction.

A gaggle of Republican candidates competing for the support of conservative activists are bound to say things that don't appeal to the middle of the country. But that's in the nature of the party, not the debates, per se. Nixing debates on networks like CNN or even MSNBC won't save GOP candidates from themselves, but it will remove perhaps the only incentive they have, however minor, to be mindful of the fact that their base doesn't reflect the country at large.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

MORE FROM Brian Beutler