Few things unite like a common enemy, a rule that was proven once again over the weekend when, as David Weigel and Robert Costa of the Washington Post report, at least 11 out of 14 Republican presidential campaigns held a meeting to strategize how to get a, um, friendlier atmosphere during the remaining Republican debates. This comes after half a week of the candidates and their surrogates complaining about the supposedly bad job that CNBC did of moderating last Wednesday's debate. While a common complaint was that the debate wasn't substantive, close examination of the evidence shows the opposite to be true: It was the substantive questions that got the most hostile reaction, demonstrating that what the candidates really want is debates that avoid hard questions and work less as debates and more as free advertising for the various campaigns.
Weigel and Costa's report on the meeting is full of damning details that suggest that all these candidates think of themselves as special snowflakes to be coddled and worshipped, even though they are competing in an overcrowded field that makes it hard to remember all their names. The arrogance has grown to the point where one campaign manager wrote, "Major question is if the RNC should be involved at all." Candidates who have such low poll numbers that they really should be treated like joke candidates instead of serious contenders were demanding "equal time" with candidates who have managed to make an impression on voters. Nearly everyone is angry that they don't get to talk more. Ironically, the whole thing just reinforces the sense that it's time for debate hosts to start culling the herd, because this many oversized egos competing for attention is just a recipe for disaster.
But just because the candidates are making imperious demands doesn't mean that the networks should kow-tow to them. The meeting, the list of demands, the whining on TV about "liberal media bias": It's all a charade whose purpose is to bullying the debate moderators out of doing their job, which is to ask real questions, even when---especially when---those questions put the candidates on the spot. Of course the candidates would prefer the debates to be free advertising instead of real journalism! But the networks that have debates scheduled---including ABC, CNN, and NBC---should not give in to their demands.
The networks have leverage here, because they can threaten to shut down the debates if the candidates don't stop making unfair demands. True, the Republican debates have been a ratings bonanza, which the candidates are using as leverage to get their way. But that chip isn't as valuable as the Republican candidates are making it out to be. For one thing, if the moderators give the candidates the softball questions they want, that will probably reduce ratings by making the debates even more boring than they already are. Half the reason people tune in is to see the candidates squirm under hard questions, and eliminating that aspect of the debate will eliminate those valuable viewers that the candidates are using as leverage.
Plus, even if the networks give in and starting meeting not just the stated demands for more airtime, but the implied demands for more flattering questions, it's not going to fix the problem. You can do everything conservatives demand and still they will whine that it's not enough and that you must have some kind of grudge against them. After all, CNBC is about as right-wing as a network gets without going the way of Fox News, and yet they were still accused of having some kind of bias against Republicans. The paranoia is too valuable to be released on something as ordinary as real world evidence against it.
The accusation that the "mainstream media" has a liberal bias is a lie that conservatives came up with decades ago not just to deflect uncomfortable, fact-based reporting on them, but also to ingratiate themselves with the conservative base. By portraying themselves as victims of the "mainstream media," politicians can get conservative voters to be protective of them, instead of critical of them. This is a year when the conservative base is in open rebellion against what they perceive as a quisling Republican establishment. Making an enemy out of the "mainstream media" is a great way to get voters to rally by your side instead of constantly debate whether you're a "true conservative." Of course every Republican is going to play that card as much as they need to, with very little concern about what the mainstream media is actually doing.
The volume of the complaints and the way that everyone on the right has come together, seemingly spontaneously, to yell about the "liberal media" is intimidating. But the networks should remember that the alliance of the campaigns is fragile. They're already turning on the RNC, trying to minimize the amount of control that the party has over the process. More to the point, there's still two months before the primaries even begin. These campaigns are competing against each other, and so holding an alliance against the media will be hard for them to do. By calling their bluff and refusing to give into campaign demands, the networks can force the campaigns into more meetings, which expose more conflicts, which could force the entire alliance to fall apart.
The conflicts are already emerging, after all. Some of the less popular candidates want longer debates and more airtime. But Ben Carson and Donald Trump understandably want less airtime---neither candidate really looks that good when they're contrasted with more professional politicians like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Plus, the various campaigns have conflicting goals. Campaigns like Mike Huckabee's or Ben Carson's are less about getting office and more about selling books and email subscriptions. They benefit from being outrageous, while candidates like Rubio or Jeb Bush really need to start portraying themselves as reasonable people who have a chance against Hillary Clinton.
This conflict is the reason that the networks shouldn't be afraid of this blackmail attempt. The RNC and mainstream candidates like Rubio and Bush need these debates. The debates offer the best possible chance to push the nuttier candidates, especially Carson and Trump, out of the race, because they really don't hold up well under the pressures of having to talk about policy next to more seasoned politicians. If Trump or Carson or Huckabee wants to boycott, so what? So much the better for Republicans if the only people left standing on the stage are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and maybe Rand Paul. The RNC and mainstream candidates are probably aware of this (the Bush campaign has been relatively chill about things already), or they could be reminded of it.
Either way, the smart thing for the networks to do is call the candidates' bluff. If they don't want to have debates on the networks' terms, there shouldn't be any debates at all.