The Republican National Commttee wil vote on Friday to exclude CNN and MSNBC from hosting GOP debates in 2016.
The stated reason is because those two networks are planning Hillary Clinton films. But the real reason is that the films give the RNC the excuse it needs to get a handle on the debates, of which there were 20 in 2012.
The RNC's very vocal outrage over the projects gives 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 Chair 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 chair 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."
I understand the impetus to exclude people like Candy Crowley and Wolf Blitzer from participating, but won't hand picked moderators more favorable to the GOP create a reaction that the debates aren't "real" in the minds of some viewers? Also, if the GOP candidate is elected president, wouldn't it be valuable to see how he responds to the biased questions of reporters? Once in the White House, a president won't be able to avoid everyone but Fox News. Seeing how he deals with a true adverserial press might be important to voters' decisions.
But the idea that the RNC can now stipulate a certain number of debates and when they occur is a step forward. Now if they can only get the primary schedule under control.