GOP terrified of Chris Matthews: Why it schemed to keep “nefarious" newsman from hosting debates

RNC chair says his big achievement isn’t opening up his party -- but stacking debates with conservative questioners

Published February 25, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Susan Walsh/MSNBC)
(AP/Susan Walsh/MSNBC)

Well meaning reporters, myself included, like to reference Reince Priebus’s famous 2013 “autopsy” calling for greater minority outreach as evidence of a party that wants to open up to blacks, Latinos, Asians, women and the LGBT community. Just this Monday Slate’s Alec MacGillis, in an great piece on Scott Walker’s “stormy” campaign, asked whether “the party that [Priebus] said needed to broaden its appeal” really wanted to nominate someone as steeped in the politics of white backlash (my term) as Walker.

Of course the Priebus report is pretty much the only such evidence that the GOP wants to “broaden its appeal,” and it’s been repeatedly contradicted by reality, but we persist.

Now Priebus himself has identified his proudest accomplishment as RNC chair, and it has nothing to do with his widely touted outreach plan. He told radio host Hugh Hewitt Tuesday night that his most important achievement is “taking control of the presidential primary debate process” for 2016.

Hewitt, fresh from hectoring David Corn in defense of his pal Bill O’Reilly, opened the interview with an effusive introduction.   “I want to thank him, because it was because of his efforts that the Salem Media Group is able to co-sponsor with CNN three debates, in which I will be a participant,” Hewitt kvelled, continuing: “You’ve worked a revolution.”

Priebus was just as obsequious. “Well, hey, congratulations to you and congratulations to Salem Media.” The two men go on to praise one another for their roles in protecting the party’s debate process from the likes of Chris Matthews.


Priebus tells Hewitt his goal was “creating a debate environment that would bring honor to the Republican Party, not a debate environment spurred on by nefarious actors like Chris Matthews and others.” He went on: “Today was a big announcement. I’m excited about it. I’m happy for you.”

Nobody was happier than Hewitt, who blubbered:  “I’ve got to tell you, the Twitter reaction, the new media reaction was like Pharaoh getting met by Moses. Conservatives are so desperate to have some of their questions asked and answered, it’s not really about dominating the debate.”

But as the two men continued, it’s clear that Priebus’s new rules are absolutely about dominating the debate. “You know, when someone wants to ask a half an hour’s worth of questions about birth control when there’s far many other things to talk about in an hour and a half, you know, someone’s going to be able to say hey, what are we doing here?” Priebus boasted. (Take that, George Stephanopoulos!) “I think having interest and intrigue, and a little bit of drama, is just fine as long as you can contain the process.”

And apparently mainstream media outlets are fine with letting the RNC “contain the process.” There will be at least nine debates, down from more than 20 in the 2012 cycle, and CNN will partner with conservative Salem Media Group for three of them. Fox will host at least three, maybe four, including debate no. 1, in August of 2015. “We’re working with other conservative outlets as well to make more announcements,” Priebus promised.  Presumably Fox needs no conservative media partner.

To close the worshipful interview, Hewitt asked Priebus to choose his “most significant” reform. Again, the RNC chair answered: “I think controlling the debates. I think having control over the debates so that we don’t turn this into a 23 debate circus in front of people who don’t care at all about the party but only care about making news for themselves, that’s number one.”

Strangely, Priebus didn't even mention his famous outreach plan, and Hewitt didn't ask about it. Maybe now reporters can stop talking about it too. The RNC is far more interested in changing the composition of the reporters asking its candidates questions than the composition of its voters, at least 90 percent of whom are white. That's not Chris Matthews's fault, and it's not something the GOP is likely to change any time soon.

By Joan Walsh