It has been a moment to debate debates.
The Republican National Committee unanimously voted this past week to not allow NBC or CNN to hold a Republican presidential primary debate in 2016 if they continue with their biopics dealing with Hillary Clinton. They have been criticized by many for this decision. Let’s pause and try to understand this a bit more deeply than just quick reactions.
Some have said this decision is counterproductive, because Republicans will lose an audience of folks they need for the general election. While that is probably true in a small way, in the bigger picture it probably isn’t true.
The main function of presidential primary debates is two-fold. First, to communicate to and persuade voters who will vote in Republican primaries and caucuses. And second, for the candidates to improve their performance and campaign ability through the series of debates and become stronger candidates headed into a general election. The RNC’s decision will have no effect on either one of these functions.
In 2012 approximately 20 million voters, nearly all diehard Republicans, participated in the nominating primary calendar. In the 20 debates, the total number of viewers for each debate was between 3 million and 7 million viewers (and interestingly ABC News, with whom I am analyst, sponsored the most-watched Republican debate in 2012).
In looking at an analysis of these viewers, it was overwhelmingly partisan. It was predominantly Republicans checking out their field; some Democrats, who were always going to vote for President Obama, tuned in for entertainment; and very few independents watched. The debates in 2012 were really about Republican candidates talking to Republican voters. Just as in years past, debates in the Democratic primary were about Democratic candidates talking to Democratic voters.
No one would really fault or be surprised if Democrats decided not to have Fox News do one of their debates during the Democratic Primary process. I am not equating CNN to Fox, but one could logically equate NBC, whose cable partner is very partisan MSNBC, to a Fox News type broadcast. And the suspicions already run deep among Republicans about the “mainstream” media (as they say) as not being objective. While I believe many of these fears are unfounded, some are actually well founded. And as we know, if someone feels a certain way or has some fear about something or lacks trust, it is often times hard to make a logical argument on the opposite side.
And on the second function above, Republicans with other media outlets will conduct at least 10 or more debates during the primary process in 2016. So they will get the forums and time they need to improve their performance and formulate a coherent conservative message and vision before the fall campaign.
It is also interesting to note that some of the more pointed questions and harsh critiques came from what some would believe were the more conservative media folks in 2012. And counter to what Republicans say, the number and style of debates in 2012 wasn’t the reason they lost the election to President Obama.
There is obviously some real question of whether this is a politically expedient move or one based on authentic concern. Let’s assume it is both, which actually would make sense. I totally understand why people or groups in their life try to preserve their own integrity by who are the people with which they associate and who they let in their lives and how they spend their time.
It seems to me appropriate for each of us (as well as important organizations in our life who supposedly represent us) to draw boundaries so that integrity is maintained. We may have a desire to be kind to everyone or allow anyone into our house, but sometimes the strength of our own integrity demands that we have boundaries to some people. I can forgive someone for trashing my house as a guest at a party, but that doesn’t mean I am going to give them a key to come over whenever they want.
Republicans can be faulted or criticized for many things (and I have!). And they certainly need to have a bigger tent, allowing more diversity of opinion and values, if they want to win national elections. And if governing and winning elections is their goal, then they definitely need to see America as it exists in the 21st century and not be a party that feels like the 1950s. As I have said before, they are a “Mad Men” party in a “Modern Family” country right now.
But criticizing the RNC for this debate decision seems a bit off base. No media outlet has some inalienable right to conduct a debate — it is actually a privilege in this democracy. And if we understand many Republicans’ fears, and their main goals of debates in the primaries as laid out above, then it does make some sense of why they made the decision they did.
I don’t necessarily believe in threats, but I do believe people have a right to try and preserve their own integrity, to be able to draw boundaries so they can live according to their own deeply held values, and to associate with folks they think will respect those boundaries and that integrity. If that is what motivated the RNC, then bravo to them. If it was some rationale of a more base nature, then trust me, the world always catches up to our motivations and it will be discovered.
In the end, it only really matters what our actions are and how they comport with our words and our values. And in the end CNN, NBC, the RNC, and all of us, will be judged on that standard over time. Don’t tell me you have given up drinking and gambling if you still go to a bar in Vegas every weekend.
There you have it.