The GOP is digging its own grave: How their debate tantrum hastens the party's demise

Cruz & Co. want the debates to resemble the Fox echo chamber. In that case, good luck winning national elections!

Published November 2, 2015 10:21PM (EST)

  (AP/Nati Harnik)
(AP/Nati Harnik)

On Sunday, top advisers to several Republican campaigns met in a Hilton hotel outside of Washington D.C. to discuss how to leverage more control over the Republican National Committee and the debate process. The candidates are reportedly unhappy with the debate format and, more importantly, with the absence of softball questions from the moderators.

The meeting was spearheaded by the campaigns of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham. Trump and Carson want to debate as little as possible, which is understandable given their superficial stances on the issues. If you’re them and you know you’re popular for entirely cosmetic reasons, there’s very little to gain by engaging more experienced candidates in real-time debates with non-sycophants as moderators.

For Jindal and Graham, this is about being noticed. “I think it [the meeting] was productive in that campaigns will now assume negotiation of format instead of the RNC,” said Gail Gitcho, spokeswoman for the Jindal campaign. And what Jindal and Graham are negotiating for, according to the New York Times, is the abolition of the undercard debate:

The campaigns of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are simply eager to have their candidates move from the “undercard” stage to the prime-time debate. They have suggested holding two prime-time debates in one evening, each roughly 90 minutes. The candidates — seven for each debate — would be chosen randomly instead of by their positions in the polls.

From the perspective of asterisk candidates like Jindal and Graham, this is a smart move; it won’t change the dynamics of the race, but more stage time with candidates who actually matter is always a good thing for them.

Ted Cruz is also lobbying for dramatic changes in the debate process. Cruz is convinced, after last week’s CNBC debate, that there’s a left-wing conspiracy to torpedo the GOP’s chances of winning the White House next year. “What you have is a bunch of left-wing operatives whose object is that whoever the Republican nominee is, they want him as battered and bruised as possible so that the Democrat wins in November,” Cruz told a GOP crowd in Iowa this weekend.

Cruz, naturally, took it one step further, suggesting the RNC allow only partisan hacks to moderate the debates: “How about instead of a bunch of attack journalists, we actually have real conservatives? Could you imagine a debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?” Setting aside the fact that CNBC is hardly a bastion of progressive thought, I’m not sure Cruz thought this one through.

I can easily imagine a GOP debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, and it would be a catastrophe for the Republican Party. That trinity of gasbags would tease every ounce of crazy out of the candidates on stage, alienating moderates and centrists across the country. Perhaps that would be good for Cruz’s personal branding, but it’d also be a gift to the Democratic Party.

In any case, it’s unclear what Sunday’s meeting will accomplish for the candidates. All signs point to the RNC forfeiting more control to the candidates, particularly Trump and Carson, who have a tremendous amount of influence right now. According to Politico, there was tension between the Bush and Trump camps over the upcoming Telemundo debate (Telemundo is a subsidiary of NBC), which the RNC has suspended due to the candidate backlash against NBC. Jeb’s campaign manager requested to reinstate the debate, mostly because Jeb speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-American wife, but “Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski pushed back hard, threatening to boycott the event entirely.” Trump is the frontrunner and a ratings bonanza for the networks, so I expect him to win this battle.

The rift between the RNC and the candidates will, eventually, prove disastrous for the long-term viability of the party. What the candidates are really protesting here isn’t the length or format of the debate. What they want is for the debate to resemble the echo chamber of Fox News and talk radio. They complain about the pressure to engage and confront one another, but isn’t that what debates are for? Ted Cruz wants sycophants to ask loaded questions that allow candidates to deliver rehearsed soliloquies, but that’s what stump speeches are for – debates are about forced collisions.

It’s revealing that amidst all the calls for protest and cancellations, the candidates agreed not to implement debate changes until after the upcoming Fox Business Network debate. According to the Washington Post, everyone in that room is “afraid to make Roger [Ailes] mad.” And they should be. Fox News is the fount of propaganda for the conservative movement. Fox is where candidates go to be fellated by know-nothing anchors who ask inane but friendly questions of GOP candidates.

This is what the candidates want, and it’s what they expect to get at the debates. If the candidates do get their way, and I assume they will, future Republican debates will mirror Fox News both in their biases and in their epistemic closure. They may be free of those pesky “gotcha” questions, but they’ll also be contrived propaganda parties for the base.

That plays well among the converted, but it won’t appeal to the rest of the country. If anything, it will hasten the demise of a Republican Party already struggling to win national elections.

Ben Carson Calls For Overhaul Of GOP Debate Format

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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