A day after roughly a dozen Republican presidential campaigns came together in a show of force Sunday night to protest the debate process, their fragile consensus collapsed on Monday, with a number of candidates refusing to sign on to a group letter intended to compel TV networks to bow to their demands.
The defections threw the talks into disarray, and by late Monday some senior advisers to GOP candidates were beginning to doubt whether their pact would hold up at all. Just 24 hours after the Republican campaigns declared they were seizing debate negotiating power from the Republican National Committee — and empower themselves to deal with networks — the advisers said they were beginning to consider handing it back.
Story Continued Below
With four candidates — Donald Trump, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina — announcing on Monday that they would not sign a letter to networks detailing proposed formats for future debates, some people involved in the talks conceded that it would be difficult to move forward given the lack of unity.
“Things are sinking fast,” said one adviser. “Things sound wobbly,” said another.
Others, however, pointed out that most of the GOP campaigns were still ready to sign the letter and that a majority could form a pact.
Those involved in the discussions said they expected a final decision on whether to send a letter to come Tuesday evening.
Even if the group decided to back off, some advisers said, the campaigns had achieved a key objective: getting the ear of the RNC. Several Republican campaigns had complained that the committee had not been effective in negotiating with broadcast networks on their behalf. But as they have voiced concerns, they said, the RNC has seemed increasingly interested in demonstrating they had teeth. On Sunday, the committee announced a shakeup in its debate team, elevating two top aides, Katie Walsh and Sean Cairncross. The RNC’s chairman, Reince Priebus, has also been taking an increasingly active role.
The shakeup came ahead after representatives of most of the campaigns held a two-hour dinner meeting on Sunday night at a Hilton in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss taking greater control of the RNC’s debate process. The group agreed to reduce the committee’s role, and to convey several other demands to TV networks in a letter to be drafted by Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Monday began with Chris Christie blasting the effort as spineless. The moderators at last Wednesday’s CNBC debate were awful, the New Jersey governor agreed. But he had two words for complaints about the event: “So what?”
“First of all, there’s no deal in place among the candidates. So that’s erroneous reporting,” Christie said on “Fox & Friends. “But secondly, you know, stop complaining. You know, do me favor. Set up a stage, put podiums up there, and let’s just go.”
Carly Fiorina was quick to follow, telling “Fox & Friends” that her campaign wasn’t at Sunday night’s meeting and that she’d rather focus on Iowa. “We’ve had no trouble negotiating with the networks, and my policy remains what it’s always been: I’ll debate anyone, anytime, anywhere,” the former Hewlett-Packard CEO said. “We need to understand that the media is not going to be fair.”
Later on Monday, Ginsberg circulated a draft of the letter, which asks networks to commit to, among other things, not asking candidates to raise their hands in answer to a question, not holding a lightning round, not allowing “candidate-to-candidate questioning” and keeping the temperature in the debate hall below 67 degrees.
It leaked immediately.
Donald Trump’s aides refused to sign the letter, as the Washington Post first reported, though they denied their policy had changed.
“As we have for the previous three debates, the Trump Campaign will continue to negotiate directly with the host network to establish debate criteria that will determine Mr. Trump’s participation. This is no different than the process that occurred prior to the Fox, CNN, and CNBC debates,” a Trump spokesperson told POLITICO in a statement.
The campaigns for Fiorina, Christie and John Kasich confirmed they also would not be signing the letter.
“As the governor stated on TV this morning, ‘Stop complaining. Do me a favor, set up a stage, put podiums up there and let’s just go. OK?” Christie spokesperson Sam Smith said in an email.
“We are declining to sign the letter. We’re happy the group decided to agree with us not alter the Fox debate. As the governor of Ohio we are used to answering tough questions all the time,” Kasich spokesperson Chris Schrimpf emailed.
Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, Sarah Isgur Flores, wrote back to Ginsberg: “As we have expressed publicly, we encourage the RNC to sanction conservative networks such as the Blaze and One America News to host and moderate a debate. We do not care whether it’s 67 degrees or our green room isn’t as plush as another candidate. Team Carly will not be signing this letter.”
Barry Bennett, Ben Carson’s campaign manager and the lead organizer of Sunday’s meeting, told POLITICO that he was “disappointed” in Trump’s decision to reject the letter, but that it makes “no real functional difference.”
“We will sign the letter with all of the Republican candidates,” he said in an email.
The discord among the campaigns came as the RNC sought to redirect their ire away from the committee and toward the TV networks, while emphasizing its ongoing role in the debate process.
“The truth is, we’re involved, we’re in control. We’re setting the calendar,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus said Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “The ability to sanction or de-sanction a debate is with the RNC. And the candidates want that to be with the RNC because we have the leverage to make that happen.”
Sean Spicer, the committee’s chief strategist and communications director, called the CNBC debate “a complete disaster.”
“I think our candidates are rightly upset. The clips that you played expressed just a portion of that outrage. I think they expected a debate on the economy and on financial matters, and it wasn’t,” Spicer told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday morning.
Spicer also sought to draw a contrast between his party and the Democrats, whose intra-party squabbles over a lack of debates have been the main issue.
“Our party is inclusive. It allows the candidates to have a discussion. On the other side, you’re having protests outside their headquarters,” he said, in reference to demonstrations outside Democratic National Committee headquarters before the second GOP debate in September.
The party’s role should be to set a calendar and to ensure that candidates have their concerns heard by the networks, Spicer said. “Anyone who thinks we can put words in moderators’ mouths is crazy,” he added. “The candidates should be involved in understanding and negotiating with these networks the best format that they agree upon. That’s their role. That’s something that we advocate for.”
Asked why the next Fox Business/Wall Street Journal GOP debate on Nov. 10 would not be subject to any of the campaigns’ demands, Spicer said that the campaigns “clearly feel that the format that Fox has given them is fine.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s been on the undercard stage in the first three debates, said on Monday morning that he thought negotiations were moving forward “in a productive fashion.”
“I don’t mind being asked hard questions and challenging questions. I think some of the questions have been downright silly, and this thing has gone on too long,” the senator said from Clemson, South Carolina. “The second debate went on too long, the last debate was just a complete food fight. So we’re trying to take control over the process. And [RNC Chairman] Reince Priebus is a good friend. My beef is not with him.”
Graham also dismissed the idea from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that moderators should have voted in past Republican primaries, “because journalists are not supposed to be Republicans or Democrats.”
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to grow the party, and one way to grow the party is be challenged by people who are not in it,” he added. “So I think it’s not the political bias of the moderator that’s driving the problem here. It’s sort of this ‘got you’ stuff.”
Christie, for his part, seemed ready to move on from criticism of the moderators as unfair or biased. “They were not good,” the New Jersey governor said. “Did it really affect the debate all that much? I mean, I don’t know.”
The first two debates on Fox News and CNN were much of the same, he added, in that the candidates frequently interrupted each other.
“Why are we wasting time whining and bickering over this?” he asked. “I’d rather spend my time going out there talking to voters to talk about issues that really matter to the country, and if you think anybody who’s watching those debates really really cares about the future of the country is worried about whether a bathroom is close? Come on.”
“If you can’t exert bladder control for two hours, maybe you shouldn’t be president of the United States,” he cracked. At the Sept. 16 debate at the Reagan Library, Christie noted, he did not sweat “at all.”
“I saw [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker sweating, and I saw [Florida Sen.] Rubio sweating like crazy. But I didn’t sweat. And if I’m not sweating, how was it?” the governor asked.
Asked whether he was saying that NBC should go ahead and host the Feb. 26 debate, reversing the RNC’s suspension, Christie said he was not. “For us to be sitting around and wasting our time … let’s just show up and do what we do,” he added.
At a fundraising event Monday evening, a punchy President Barack Obama mocked the GOP candidates’ debate drama. “They say, when I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “And then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators.”
“If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you,” he added.
Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Powered by WPeMatico