Debate Complaints Lead RNC to Suspend NBC Role
In the aftermath of this week’s CNBC-hosted Republican presidential debate, candidates and the Republican National Committee are lashing out — discussing changes to future debates and suspending NBC News from hosting a February forum.
In a letter to NBC on Friday, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote that the party would suspend its partnership for the mid-winter debate “to ensure there is not a repeat performance” of the CNBC one, which was widely panned by the GOP.
“While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” Priebus wrote. “What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.”
NBC News called the suspension “a disappointing development.”
“However, along with our debate partners at Telemundo, we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party,” the network said in a statement.
The RNC’s decision, reached unanimously among its debate committee members Friday, comes after some campaigns have threatened a mutiny. Campaigns for Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal have organized a meeting for this weekend in Washington, D.C., to discuss potential changes, Politico reported. The meeting was not slated to include an RNC representative.
“I think at this point, if five or six of us get together, who generate the largest portion of the audience, we can force change,” Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett told the Washington Examiner this week.
It’s unclear whether the RNC’s decision will appease those campaigns. The committee’s debate committee chairman, Steve Duprey, said not all were content with it.
“Some are, some aren’t,” he said. “I encouraged them to have a meeting. If they can develop a consensus as to changes they want, we will push for them. Alternatively, they can.”
Although no consensus has yet emerged among the candidates, they have wasted no time in taking their concerns to the public.
“What it’s turned into is ‘Gotcha!’ And that’s silly,” Carson told reporters after the debate, referring to the types of questions candidates have been asked.
"The campaigns are not going to allow the networks to control this process," Mike Huckabee said in an interview with Fox Business.
The GOP-vs.-the-media construct is nothing new. The RNC last year boycotted appearances on MSNBC after the network suggested in a tweet that Republicans “hate” interracial marriages. After reports emerged that ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos donated money to the Clinton Foundation, the RNC insisted he could not moderate his network’s debate. And candidates frequently win political plaudits for attacking news outlets thought to be left-of-center, such as The New York Times.
But in this case, grievances are not only being aired publicly for political advantage but also privately to the RNC — indicating campaigns are genuinely peeved. However, there might be little the RNC can do to further rein in future hosts. Already, the committee has exerted much more control over the process than in past years by limiting the number of debates to 12, requiring that dates be announced well in advance, and making suggestions regarding format and moderators.
Many of those changes were sought after the 2012 GOP primary, when the debate schedule was a source of great angst among the campaigns. Most controversial was the number of debates, which stretched to 20 and, some Republicans thought, heightened infighting and damaged candidates’ electability.
“The liberal media doesn’t deserve to be in the driver’s seat,” Priebus said last year, when the RNC voted to limit the number of debates in this election cycle.
But even with a slew of new guidelines in place, the GOP was soon faced with an unforeseen challenge: fitting a historically large primary field onto the debate stage. That puzzle resulted in the so-called “undercard” debates for the lowest-polling candidates, a system that has angered those kept off the prime-time stage.
The Democratic Party has also grappled this cycle with striking the right balance in its debate schedule: The Democratic National Committee has come under fire for having sanctioned too few debates, with only six on the schedule. Such criticism has spawned some unsanctioned candidate “forums,” including one to be hosted by MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow next week in South Carolina.
For Republicans, the number no longer seems problematic; instead, the questions and moderators are now at issue. In one memorable moment during the CNBC debate, Ted Cruz unloaded on the questioners.
“This is not a cage match,” he fumed. “‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”