By Hastings Wyman –
In 1964, when the Republicans nominated conservative insurgent Barry Goldwater for president at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, at one point the delegates, angry and frustrated by the news media’s incredibly biased reporting on their hero, turned around, looked up at the booths housing the national media and booed and shook their fists. To the media folks, this was just another example of conservatives’ extremism.
That came to this old timer’s mind last week when the Republican presidential candidates lashed back at CNBC’s interrogators’ hostile and even silly questions, a reaction that provoked loud cheers from the audience.
Today’s GOP candidates’ displeasure with the media even has some muscle behind it, with Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Preibus suspending the committee’s agreement with NBC to host the February 26 debate. His letter to NBC News Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News, which owns CNBC, summed up his party’s reaction to the debate: “CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.”
Should no agreement be reached, and should the RNC find another network to televise the February debate in Houston, NBC will lose a bundle of money. That’s called competition, which GOPers favor.
The difference, of course, is that Republicans today, even the unbridled conservatives, are much more politically potent than they were over a half century ago. For starters, they don’t have to depend on liberal newscasters: They have Fox News always ready to give them a fair, if not positive, hearing. Moreover, with the flattening out of sources of information, voters have a lot more choices and don’t depend on three New York-based television networks, as they did in 1964.
This exercise of a combination of economic and public relations muscle by the GOP is something new in American politics. Where this confrontation between what Sarah Palin dubbed “the lame-stream media” and the Republican Party will end is not at all clear. But at a minimum, debate moderators – even those affiliated with major news outlets – will be more likely to give due consideration to the fairness and relevance of their questions, not just their entertainment value.
On other debate matters, the much-replayed exchange over missed Senate votes between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio was not to Bush’s advantage. However, his campaign is right to hold on for awhile, at least through the New Hampshire Primary. It would be sad, however, if he and Rubio are both still in the mix in the winner-take-all Florida Primary on March 15. That would prevent the party’s establishmentarians, if you will, from presenting a united front, something that would give the nation a better test of where today’s Republicans stand.
But while Bush lost that confrontation, the damage to Rubio is likely to be greater than appears at first blush. Should Rubio be the GOP nominee, or even the vice-presidential nominee, look for Democratic ads featuring none-other than replays of Bush’s slashing attack on Rubio, not just complaining about his Senate attendance record, but even urging him to resign.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave an impressive performance and laid out plainly the gap between experienced officeholders and the rebellious right. Whether he will benefit from it, however, is questionable. Commonsense is often not as appealing as red hot rhetoric.
Finally, at the earlier four-man debate, Lindsey Graham once again stole the show. He made his points clearly and without notes. He acknowledges that the hawkish policies he espouses involve sacrifice, which of course is his problem. And he speaks knowledgeably about economic issues. If, however, the Top Ten shrink by a candidate or two, Graham could join the grown-ups at the big table. There, he may have more of an impact.