By JAMES HOHMANN | 8/16/13 5:01 AM EDT Updated: 8/17/13 7:20 AM EDT
BOSTON — The Republican National Committee passed a resolution Friday to bar NBC and CNN from hosting GOP primary debates in 2016 if the networks move forward with their Hillary Clinton projects.
But the vote was not just about Clinton.
The RNC’s very vocal outrage over the projects gave party leaders a perfect excuse to do what they’ve long wanted to do anyway: get some control over a process that led to 20 grueling primary debates last cycle and gave Mitt Romney many chances to get himself into trouble with comments about self-deportation, contraception and the like.
In close contests, debates matter. The outcome of a broader RNC push, launched at this three-day meeting, may mean fewer of them — starting nearer to the Iowa caucuses and featuring friendlier moderators and gentler questions.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus got a bonanza of free media by threatening to withhold sanctioned debates from NBC for its planned miniseries on Clinton starring Diane Lane and from CNN for working on a feature-length documentary about the former secretary of state’s life.
“It’s all related,” Priebus said in an interview at the Westin here Thursday. “It’s pretty clear that our primary system, both on the calendar side and the debate side, is a mess and it has to be fixed. This resolution is one small piece that people feel very strongly about, and it relates to the entire issue that we need to address.”
Priebus and many of his friends on the 168-member governing body of the Republican Party have long been open about their desire to have more of a say over agendas, formats and moderators.
“There are practical, feasible ways for the RNC to control the debate schedule,” said Jim Bopp of Indiana, a former chairman of the party’s committee on debates and now special counsel to the RNC. “The debates should be viewed as a job interview, not an opportunity to score political points. The problem is that liberals in the media simply have a different agenda than the Republican Party does in terms of selecting its nominee. They’re not sympathetic to the candidates.”
Focusing on Clinton has the upside of galvanizing conservative activists who perceive rampant liberal media bias and otherwise might see what the official party apparatus is doing as some kind of power play.
Speculation that conservative radio talking heads like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh could moderate debates has ensured positive coverage of the new push on their programs.
“Put together your own debates with your own moderators, whoever you want, and focus on real Republican issues in these debates rather than whether they’re going to do a Hillary Clinton miniseries or not,” Limbaugh said on his show last week. “In this current modern age, there’s no reason anymore to treat these mainstream media people as mainstream objective and nonaligned reporters.”
Without offering evidence, he speculated that ABC’s George Stephanopoulos coordinated with the Obama campaign to ask Romney about contraception during a primary debate so they could create “the war on women” narrative.
“Wherever you go outside of Fox, you are going up against the Democrat Party with people disguised as journalists,” said Limbaugh. “Why do it?”
Bopp, who notes that Democrats refused to debate on Fox News in 2008, wants policy experts or figures from the conservative movement to ask questions and supports less confrontational formats such as town halls. He said the RNC should play a role similar to that of the National Football League, producing the debates and then allowing TV stations to broadcast them.
“They have certain input, but much of it is determined by the NFL — not the networks,” he said. “I see that as more of the model that would achieve our goals because a job interview is much different than the ‘contest’ or the ‘battle’ that the mainstream media views the debates to be.”
News executives roundly reject the argument that they are biased and say they help the lower-case-d democratic process by asking tough questions that otherwise do not get asked in an era of stage-managed events and Web videos. They freely acknowledge asking questions designed to make news but say they concentrate on areas of disagreement among Republicans to help voters make an informed choice about who should lead the free world.
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