The Washington Times
January 22, 2016
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A remarkable revolution has taken place quietly but certainly in the process of electing a candidate for president.
For the first time since the rise of the television networks, the center of power in conducting the national conversation of presidential politics has shifted from the news media to the political party. That remarkable achievement has been driven by years of hard work, shrewd strategy, and courageous decisions led by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
The scale of the change is truly historic.
I first came to question the old debate process (which was defined and dominated by the media) in 2008, when I watched Chris Matthews–Speaker Tip O’Neill’s former press secretary and a passionate liberal Democrat partisan–conduct a Republican presidential debate. Chris kept asking questions designed to put Republicans in the worst possible light. He was arrogant and contemptuous and demeaning to the Republican candidates.
After that debate, I began to watch the process critically. It was clear that all too many “news” personalities saw themselves as bigger than the presidential candidates themselves. They believed it was the media who would define what mattered and the media who would decide which candidates were doing well.
When I ran for president in 2012, I was determined from the very first debate to challenge the media every time they got out of line. The result was some very fiery exchanges on both sides.
Then, in 2013, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus began a methodical effort to scrutinize the media’s conduct and insist on a higher standard of fairness.
The first shot was fired in 2013, when NBC and CNN both announced they were going to do films about Hillary Clinton. NBC was going to do a four-part miniseries with actress Dyan Cannon playing Hillary. (No bias there!) CNN was going to produce a feature-length film.
Reince led the Republican National Committee to adopt a resolution condemning this “favoritism”. Both networks backed down when threatened with being blocked from hosting any presidential debates.
Next, in January 2014, an MSNBC employee issued a tweet from the network’s official Twitter account suggesting that Republicans were racist. Priebus fired off a strong letter demanding an apology. To everyone’s surprise, the network apologized and punished the offending staffer.
Those skirmishes set the stage for seizing control of the debate process.
There was a strong consensus within the party that there had been too many debates in previous years. I disagreed at the time, but in retrospect they may have been right. Having 15 debates has raised the value and importance of each one.
Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director, described the shortcomings of the old process in his Wall Street Journal op-ed last summer, as well as the steps the RNC was taking to assert Republican control of the debates. For one thing, the RNC insisted that each debate include a conservative media partner and at least one conservative moderator. Thanks to this policy, more conservative-oriented questions have been asked in this cycle than in all previous cycles combined.
In addition, Chairman Priebus and the RNC were helped in their efforts by a totally unexpected event.
From the day he announced, on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump brought a scale of excitement and unpredictability to the race that led to an explosion of viewership.
The very first debate, on Fox News in August, drew 24 million viewers. This may have matched the viewership of the ten least-watched 2012 debates combined. It was an astonishing result.
The scale of debate viewership turned broadcasting the debate into a cash cow for the television networks. Suddenly, what had been a public service became a profit center.
This gave the RNC significant negotiating power. In another debate, CNBC did a terrible job by asking very strange questions, showing clear disrespect and projecting a destructive attitude. Trump, Cruz and the other candidates helped by pushing back strongly on the bias. And the RNC responded authoritatively. Led by Chairman Priebus, it immediately suspended NBC as a future debate host.
Then, after due consideration, the RNC awarded the debate to CNN and the Washington Times.
This decision cost NBC millions in revenue. It also marked an historic shift in power.
The Priebus revolution has recentered control and definition of presidential debates from the networks to the parties. It is a real victory for the principle of citizen organizations rather than elite media defining the process of self-government.
Now it is time for the two parties to build on this achievement and take joint control of the general election debates.
The current Commission on Presidential Debates is an obsolete, elitist approach that dictates endless details about the process to two candidates for the most powerful office in the world.
It is time for the general election to benefit from the same good reforms as the nominating debates.
Go for it, Reince.
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