GOP candidates’ war on debates is backfiring

Cartoon by Dana Summers, Tribune Content Agency

Cartoon by Dana Summers, Tribune Content Agency

Republican candidates for president are complaining loudly and often about the unfairness of their televised debate process. They’re beginning to sound like the the kid who said he didn’t get enough candy on Halloween.

Whatever the problems of the recent CNBC debate — and there were many, starting with the opening job-interview question of “What’s your biggest weakness” — Republicans now seem to think they have the right to dictate the terms of future debates.

Good luck with that.

Representatives from the GOP campaigns drew up a draft letter of what the candidates wanted to see — and what they insisted be removed — from future televised debates. The list included a demand for opening and closing statements by all of the candidates (seems reasonable); a requirement that the temperature be 67 degrees (so no one could see them sweat, presumably); candidate “pre-approval” for any campaign graphics or candidate biographies; no “frivolous” or “lightning” rounds with “gotcha” questions (meaning, no questions with any real journalism); and a demand that no reaction shots from audience members be shown (so the TV audience couldn’t see the in-person audiences laughing at candidates — or sleeping?). There were even specific demands about camera angles and bathroom breaks.

It took less than a day before the entire effort fell apart. Several candidates, realizing they would look like whiners if they backed such a list, said they would refuse to sign the letter. Real estate mogul Donald Trump announced that he would be negotiating directly with TV outlets on his own.

Even Megyn Kelly of Fox News, who bore the brunt of attacks by Trump for some of her tough questions at the first debate, openly mocked the candidates’ demands. She read through the list of demands on her show, practically rolling her eyes. “And then maybe like a foot massage?” she suggested sarcastically.

Other conservatives are worried about a backlash. “At some point, the Republican candidates are going to look weaselly and weak if they continue on this parade,” said Fox News analyst Peter Johnson Jr.

The biggest problem facing Republicans in these televised debates is the sheer number of candidates on stage. In a two-hour window, there isn’t enough time for candidates to fully explain the rationale for their candidacies and their policy positions (even though several either don’t have such policies or don’t want them to get much scrutiny). Yet candidates at the bottom of the pack stubbornly refuse to drop out of the race, some because of sheer ego, some propped up by rich sugar daddies with super PAC money, some hoping to juice book sales, and some hoping for an eventual spot in a Republican administration.

Republican primary voters deserve a chance to see their possible choices and hear what they would do in a Republican administration. Up until now, however, the debates have been mostly substance-free, and candidates who looked good and sounded at least somewhat comprehensible on TV were said to have “won” the debates.

Of course, the biggest applause lines at the CNBC debate came when candidates dragged out the tried-and-true attacks about the “liberal media,” something that exists only in the eyes of conservatives. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” complained Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Not to be outdone, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a dig of his own: Democrats had “the ultimate super PAC — it is called the mainstream media.”

Republicans will never disappoint a partisan audience by attacking the media, but their debate demands are turning into an overreach, making them look churlish. The suggestion that a future debate be moderated by the likes of blowhards Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity is laughable. Ex-Fox host Glenn Beck offered to moderate a debate. Have fun watching that debate online, GOP voters.

The candidates need TV as much as TV needs the candidates. These demands are going to fizzle.

Let’s give the last word to President Obama, who brought down the house at a Democratic fundraiser when he mercilessly tore into the usual GOP complaints that the president looked “weak” in the face of the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Have you noticed that everyone of these candidates say, ‘Obama’s weak. Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out.’ Then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at the debate.

“Let me tell you, if you can’t handle those guys, then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”

Who’s looking weak now?

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