No Forced Collisions

Election Day is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – this will be the fifty-eighth time we’ve done this – and on Monday, November 2, 2015, there was this:

Newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan said Sunday he’s willing to work across the aisle with Democrats but won’t do immigration reform with President Obama in his final 14 months in office.

“The president has proven himself untrustworthy on this issue, because he tried to unilaterally rewrite the law himself. Presidents don’t write laws. Congress does,” the Wisconsin Republican said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to Obama’s executive actions this year to ease immigration policies.

“The president’s proven himself to be untrustworthy on this issue.”

In recent closed-door meetings, Ryan has been making similar pledges about immigration to conservatives colleagues, who are wary of his past bipartisan work on comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s going to be a long year with nothing much getting done on anything, on principle, to show the voters that at least someone has principles, even if nothing gets done. This is political positioning, or posturing, and at the Washington Monthly, David Atkins explains how this works:

President Obama has been daring Republicans for months to put an immigration reform plan on his desk to negotiate or sign. Republicans have refused to do so, using the cowardly excuse that they don’t trust the president to enforce whatever deal got signed. That’s nonsensical, of course, because the president has prosecutorial discretion on the status quo as it is: any plan the Republican House might put on Obama’s desk would in theory be better for conservatives than what we have now, regardless of how President Obama chose to enforce it.

Atkins, who has been a Democratic organizer out here in California, sees how this nonsense does make internal Republican sense:

It’s perfectly obvious that of all the battles in the GOP civil war between the establishment and the base, immigration is by far the most toxic. Immigration is the main reason Donald Trump is where he is in the polls, Jeb Bush seems to have one foot in the campaign grave, and media/establishment darling “winner of every debate” Marco Rubio can’t seem to climb higher than 10% in the national numbers.

Any attempt to even consider bring a legislative proposal on immigration in the House would destroy what little is left of Republican Party unity, and make the presidential race an even bigger clown show than it is now. That downside risk is far scarier to most Republicans than whatever upside gains might be made with Hispanics in November as a result of actually trying to be responsible legislators.

Paul Ryan knows this. Every journalist worth the title knows it. He knows they know, and they know he knows they know.

And everyone is too polite to call him out for tabling a long-standing critical issue to keep his party from coming apart at the seams, in public. Atkins says Ryan is flat-out lying about his motives, but everyone knows these things happen in election years, but it may be too late for that. Greg Sargent, in his Washington Post blog, notes that it may be too late to keep this issue from doing real damage:

Republicans are pulling out of their only scheduled debate that would be aired on a Spanish-language TV network. So Democrats may respond by holding a second gathering aired on one.

The Spanish-language network Telemundo is in talks with the Democratic National Committee about possibly scheduling a new candidate forum with the Dem presidential candidates, after the Republican National Committee canceled its debate on NBC News and the NBC-owned Telemundo to protest CNBC’s handling of last week’s gathering, sources familiar with ongoing discussions tell me.

If this comes to fruition, Democrats would effectively be moving into the breach created by the RNC’s decision. It would mean Democrats end up holding two debate-style events on Spanish-language networks, since they are already set to hold a Univision debate in March.

Telemundo had already been in private talks with the DNC about holding a candidate forum, but in the wake of the GOP decision, those efforts will now be escalated, I’m told.

The Republicans are mad at CNBC for that recent mess of a debate, NBC owns CNBC, so NBC is out, and since NBC also owns Telemundo, where the debate would be simulcast in Spanish, Telemundo is also out now – but they love Hispanics, in spite of the odd things Donald Trump keeps saying about them.

Oops. Now they have this:

Obviously the RNC did not cancel this debate because of the Spanish-language network’s participation; it had many other reasons for doing so. But one consequence of this decision could be that Republicans end up holding no debate aired on a Spanish-language network. If Democrats do add a second such gathering, they would then be able to argue that they are far more interested in communicating with Latino voters than Republicans are – which is a good message for the general election.

Indeed, one of the GOP campaigns – that of Jeb Bush – is actually protesting the decision to cancel the NBC/Telemundo debate, and demanding that Telemundo be reinstated, presumably because Latino outreach would be good not just for Jeb Bush, but for the GOP overall. Guess which GOP candidate is opposing a reinstatement of Telemundo? Yep: Donald Trump. All this comes after GOP establishment types went into full-scale panic earlier this fall over the damage Trump – with his call for mass deportations and suggestion that Mexican immigrants are rapists – may already be doing to the GOP brand among Latinos. And it comes as incoming House Speaker Paul Ryan is renewing his pledge not to act on immigration reform while Obama is president.

They can’t seem to help themselves, and at the New Yorker site, Ryan Lizza says they should have known better:

In early 2013, the RNC, under its current chairman, Reince Priebus, produced a searching report that tried to make sense of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. When the report was released, the biggest news was its frank dissection of the GOP’s weakness among groups that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. “Public perception of the Party is at record lows,” the document noted. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”

One might get that impression, but the report noted an even bigger problem:

Beyond the demographic warnings contained in the report, Priebus’s team also cautioned that the Republican Party was living in a cocoon. The report said that the GOP was “increasingly marginalizing itself” at the federal level. “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” the report said. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

This is followed by a discussion of what the report saw as the real problem, the primary debates – they had twenty – and what they decided to do about that:

Ultimately, the RNC decided against setting up its own organization to run its debates. Instead, it stuck with the model of partnering with media organizations to conduct them, partly because of the high costs of running its own debates and partly because the RNC worried that setting up its own debates might make the events less credible.

Outsiders should ask tough questions. That was the party’s position, but the current candidates have decided their own party had been stupid:

Last week, after the CNBC debate that most of the candidates complained was unfair and featured hostile moderators, the campaigns finally revolted against the Priebus-negotiated debates. Representatives from most of the Republican Presidential campaigns met near Washington on Sunday night to wrest control from Priebus and the RNC. Today, they released a draft letter with their demands – which essentially consist of having their cake and eating it, too. The campaigns that sign the letter want the media to host and televise the events, but they want a level of control that they would get from running them and paying for them themselves. (Donald Trump is reportedly going to negotiate on his own.)

And there was this paragraph in the letter:

In addition, based on their evaluation of previous debates, the campaigns wish to have in all future debates a minimum 30-second opening statement and a minimum 30-second closing statement for each participant; candidate pre-approval of any graphics and bios you plan to include in your broadcast about each candidate, and that there be no “lightning rounds” because of their frivolousness or “gotcha” nature, or in some cases both.

Lizza:

Most people would agree that the Republican (and Democratic) Parties should have some say in how the debates are run and organized. These are, after all, not just news events or typical media interviews. They are partnerships between the media and a political party. It’s fair that the mechanics of the debate, such as the format, length of time, rules, and the moderators, should all be up for negotiation. For instance, the RNC asked its mainstream-media partners to add a conservative media outlet to the events, to insure that the questioning would reflect some of the issues important to Republican primary voters.

But surely the red line for any media organization has to be editorial content. After all, the RNC rejected the option of running these debates on its own. It is the media that is paying for the events, and it is over the media’s airwaves that the events are broadcast. …

What the candidates shouldn’t be allowed to do is tell reporters what questions to ask or what graphics to show on the screen, or have any role whatsoever in the editorial judgments of a news organization.

Chris Cillizza picks up on that:

These proposals totally miss the mark in terms of what debates can and should deliver to the voting public.

Take, for example, the provision that “no lightning round questions” can be asked. Yes, these sorts of questions are regularly ridiculed by the “smart” political class who insist they serve as nothing more than a distraction from the “real” issues. But, I’d rather have an entire debate of lightning-round questions than a debate in which they are banned. And I think a lightning-round-only debate would better serve voters too.

Here’s why: If you are a politician running for president, you have your talking points on any issue – major or minor – down. You have, at a minimum, a minute’s worth of a riff on energy, immigration, the environment, tax reform, or health care, the Supreme Court, tax credits, offshore drilling and 100 other issues. You’ve got all those positions on your Web site and you repeat them ad nauseum in your stump speech. It’s called being on message.

Forget that and loosen up:

Sure, some of the questions are dumb. (“If you could be any sort of bird, what kind of bird would you be – and why?”) That’s not the point. The point is that the lightning round questions are often – in truth, almost always – the ones that get candidates off their pre-planned debate scripts. No matter how seemingly inane, the lightning round makes candidates THINK – which gives you a far greater likelihood of understanding who they really are at their cores.

In fact, Cillizza suggests these questions:

“What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Why did you like it so much?” “What non-U.S. politician most inspired you — and why?” “Football, basketball or baseball – Which do you like to watch the most? Which do you like to play the most?” “What’s the last music concert you went to?” “Do you play an instrument? Did you ever?” “What was your favorite class in high school or college?”

These are not “gotcha” questions. They are aimed at drawing out more of who these people really are – or were before they became “[fill in the blank name], candidate for president.” And, let’s be honest: If you can’t name a book you’ve read and liked in the last year or explain why baseball is your favorite sport, why the hell are you running for president in the first place?

Or more seriously:

The best way to serve voters tuning into these debates is to do everything possible to get the candidates to actually think and respond to the questions they are being asked – in heated back-and-forths, in being pushed by moderators on seeming policy reversals, in formats that force candidates out of their comfort zones – that’s how you get at who they really are. Character is revealed under pressure.

The candidates may not want to voluntarily put themselves in those spots. But as a voting public, we should demand more, not less, of it.

Some of them finally understood:

The Republican effort to stage a united front on debate reforms began to crumble Monday night as several campaigns announced that they would not sign a letter of demands to debate media sponsors.

Late Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after campaigns gathered outside Washington to discuss the reforms, Donald Trump’s campaign announced that the GOP frontrunner would negotiate independently with the media organizations, spurning the other campaigns who had hoped to make a unified effort.

John Kasich’s campaign said it too was “declining to sign the letter.” Speaking to reporters, the Ohio governor said he hadn’t given any thought to the effort to overhaul the debates. “Whatever we’re doing, that’s what we’ll do. Play it where it lies,” he said.

Minutes later, in an email to CNN, the Chris Christie campaign said it would not be signing the letter either, a move that had been anticipated by the New Jersey governor’s own remarks in an interview with Fox News Monday morning: “Stop complaining,” Christie had said of his rivals. “Do me a favor, set up a stage, put podiums up there and let’s just go.”

And a spokesperson for Carly Fiorina’s campaign sent an email to Ben Ginsberg, the Republican lawyer and author of the letter, announcing that it too would not be signing. “These debates are an important chance for voters to see conservative candidates under pressure and over time,” a Fiorina spokesperson wrote.

That was fast, but Sean Illing notes this didn’t include Ted Cruz:

Cruz is convinced, after last week’s CNBC debate, that there’s a left-wing conspiracy to torpedo the GOP’s chances of winning the White House next year. “What you have is a bunch of left-wing operatives whose object is that whoever the Republican nominee is, they want him as battered and bruised as possible so that the Democrat wins in November,” Cruz told a GOP crowd in Iowa this weekend.

Cruz, naturally, took it one step further, suggesting the RNC allow only partisan hacks to moderate the debates: “How about instead of a bunch of attack journalists, we actually have real conservatives? Could you imagine a debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?” Setting aside the fact that CNBC is hardly a bastion of progressive thought, I’m not sure Cruz thought this one through.

I can easily imagine a GOP debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, and it would be a catastrophe for the Republican Party. That trinity of gasbags would tease every ounce of crazy out of the candidates on stage, alienating moderates and centrists across the country. Perhaps that would be good for Cruz’s personal branding, but it’d also be a gift to the Democratic Party.

And Illing adds this:

The rift between the RNC and the candidates will, eventually, prove disastrous for the long-term viability of the party. What the candidates are really protesting here isn’t the length or format of the debate. What they want is for the debate to resemble the echo chamber of Fox News and talk radio. They complain about the pressure to engage and confront one another, but isn’t that what debates are for? Ted Cruz wants sycophants to ask loaded questions that allow candidates to deliver rehearsed soliloquies, but that’s what stump speeches are for – debates are about forced collisions.

That was written before the others backed off and refused to sign the letter, but it does imply what started this whole mess, a sense among these candidates that the media is always and forever out to make Republicans look bad. That’s what they always say, and Conor Lynch tries to set the record straight:

So, is the mainstream media really left-wing, or even liberal, as those on the right love to claim?

First of all, it should be noted that the real world tends to have a liberal bias – at least what Cruz considers a liberal bias. Take climate change, for example. The fact that the climate is warming because of human activity is a completely uncontroversial notion; it is happening, and the vast majority of scientists agree that it will be catastrophic for humanity if nothing is done very soon. That the mainstream media does not contest the issue of climate change, or claim that it is some giant left-wing conspiracy, does not prove it is liberal, but that it is operating in reality. Cruz does not operate in reality, and believes climate change (i.e. science) is a “religion.” But just because Cruz believes this, or his deranged father, Rafael, believes that evolution is a communist lie, does not mean that evolutionary biologists are communists or that climate scientists are religious fanatics – it means that Rafael Cruz and his son are delusional.

And one must consider other matters:

Before considering whether the mainstream media is really left-wing, one should look at who owns the media. Consider this: In 1983, 90 percent of American media was owned by 50 companies, and by 2011, that number had fallen to six companies: CBS, Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp, Disney and GE, which subsequently sold its media holding, NBC Universal, to cable giant Comcast (which would, in turn, later try to merge with Time Warner Cable, although that deal eventually fell apart).

Thus, the media at large has one crucial goal: to make a profit. Not to serve the public, but to make money by selling advertisement spots to other corporations, whether they are selling new cars or tech products or pointless new drugs. All of this profit-making hardly sounds like the socialist media that Republicans would have everyone believe.

One has to look no further than the coverage of Donald Trump to see this strategy in action. The Donald and the media have been feeding off of each other over the past few months. Trump loves the attention, and the media loves the “Yooge” ratings that he brings. (The higher the ratings, the more the network can charge for advertising or subscriptions.) CNN, for example, has covered Trump as if he were a natural disaster, and even bumped a tenth anniversary special for Hurricane Katrina to cover one of Trump’s rambling campaign events.

No one is out to “get” Republicans:

Anyone who knows the history of left-wing politics understands that the media at large is not at all left-wing, but centrist at best. …

The corporate media runs for a profit, and wouldn’t dare advocate any true socialist policies that would inflict pain on its business model. Sure, the media at large supports issues like gay marriage – but again, what does this prove? Is it a plot to destroy America, as Ted Cruz’s cheerful father believes, or is it because America at large is becoming more socially tolerant?

Even Fox News knows better:

The man who has served as the personal attorney for Fox News boss Roger Ailes offered some free advice on Monday to Republican presidential candidates upset about how the party’s first three debates have gone down: “Move on.”

Peter Johnson Jr., a longtime Fox News analyst who has also reportedly been a confidant to the powerful Fox chief, appeared on the channel’s “Outnumbered” program to discuss the GOP candidates who have been demanding greater say in how the debates are run and moderated. Fox News hosted the party’s first debate in August. Its sister channel, Fox Business, is scheduled to host the fourth Republican debate next week.

Johnson was asked about candidates’ demands that debate moderators should meet criteria determined by the candidates. He drew a line in the sand.

“Moderators should meet the specific criteria of fairness and balance. That’s their criteria,” Johnson said. “At some point, the Republican candidates are going to look weaselly and weak if they continue on this parade.”

Half of them have figured that out now. They’ll have to live with those forced collisions even if they don’t like it much. So be it. Real life is full of forced collisions. Paul Ryan may be able to put off a forced collision on immigration reform, for now, but one is coming eventually, perhaps sooner than he knows.

As for the original idea here, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank puts his tongue firmly in his cheek and offers to host a future debate:

In order to guarantee that this debate will be the thoroughly enjoyable experience for the candidates that we all want it to be, I plan to allow all 15 candidates to debate on the stage at the same time and not to cut off candidates if they exceed their time limits. At the same time, I pledge to hold the overall debate length to 30 minutes, including opening and closing statements, in order to minimize time for gaffes and unscripted remarks. To avoid unhelpful reactions from the audience, I promise to have no audience. I will pipe in artificial applause of precisely the same pre-agreed length and decibel level for all candidates after all answers.

I will submit my questions in advance for pre-approval by the campaigns. No questions will be asked about women, racial minorities or any other issue that might cast the Republican Party in an unfavorable light. There will be no questions about any candidate’s past statements or actions, including but not limited to: bankruptcies, financial difficulties, missed votes and inconsistencies. Candidates will not be required to perform math or to provide supporting evidence for claims. Candidates will be seated in Barcaloungers. If candidates feel overheated, the moderator will fan them while they answer and provide them with their choice of lemon or cucumber ice water. I will begin each question with the phrase “Mother, May I,” and I will address candidates as “Your Excellency,” “Your Eminence” or another honorific approved by the campaigns.

I hope this application meets with your approval. I believe the format outlined above will, after the CNBC debate debacle, truly Make Republicans Look Great Again and return journalists to their proper role as palace courtiers. I am hopeful that I can convince my colleagues at washingtonpost.com to live-stream the debate. Though I cannot promise you that any network will broadcast the debate, I believe this should not be a major impediment. Under the requirements you proposed, very few people will be watching anyway.

That’s because people like to watch forced collisions. That’s where you find out who’s got the right stuff. You don’t take their word for it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to No Forced Collisions

  1. Rick says:

    On the question of who triumphed in last week’s CNBC debate, everyone seemed to agree at first that the candidates won and the media lost, but after a week, there seems to be a new consensus. It was as if the inmates had briefly taken over the asylum, but eventually came to their senses once they realized they couldn’t run the place by themselves.

    The whole idea of all these candidates, getting together in an OPEC-type cabal and thinking they could dictate what the news coverage of them will be, reminds me of my time in college back in the 1960s, when a bunch of us were able to persuade the school to let us create our own seminar (on the works of Mark Twain, as I remember), also selecting our own teacher, but also declaring that each student would be granted an automatic A for the course! (Hey, this was the 60s and schools felt free to experiment!) As it turned out, our professor was not that impressed with the quality of work he got out of us, so the school never tried that again.

    Who should control presidential debates has been a constant battle between obviously-subjective candidates and objective outsiders goes back to early in the history of debates, which traditionally played out not so much in the primaries as in the general elections.

    In 1980, the two major parties decided to take control of the debate process for the purpose of excluding any third-party candidates — specifically, after Democrat Jimmy Carter, in his reelection bid against Republican Ronald Reagan, refusing to share a stage with independent candidate John Anderson. CNN, in its first year of broadcasting, came to Anderson’s aid by inserting him into the live debate from a stage in Washington, DC. Most Americans never knew this even happened, due to the fact that CNN was arguably being seen by only hundreds of viewers back then; I only remember this unmemorable occasion because I worked on that event.

    For a while, it was assumed by all concerned that the involvement of a respected outside organization was required, just to give the operation a little much-needed credibility:

    The role was filled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) civic organization in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1987, the LWV withdrew from debate sponsorship, in protest of the major party candidates attempting to dictate nearly every aspect of how the debates were conducted.

    The League formally voted to drop out in October of 1988, and put out a pretty harsh press release on this, blasting both parties:

    “The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.

    “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

    Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and vas presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

    Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues. …

    Neuman issued a final challenge to both Vice President Bush and Governor Dukakis to “rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate.”

    Needless to say, neither candidate rose to that challenge, and the rest is history.

    The format battles continued over who could decide who would ask questions and what questions could be asked, with the major TV and cable news networks taking over from the League of Women Voters, and there were times that the parties privately threatened to broadcast the things themselves (and also thought of taking the nominating conventions away from the networks) — until they realized that, while they were busy offering up their programing to anyone who wanted it, chances are viewers would instead be watching network sitcoms and such.

    They not only needed someone else to put the events into living rooms, they needed someone else to pay for the expensive production.

    Speaking of which, while Donald Trump is suggesting that the networks make so much money off these debates, he’s pushing the idea that the networks donate all this money to veteran’s groups. But in fact, if these debates ever turn into party- or candidate-controlled pseudo-news events, with all the power of choosing moderators and questions and whatnot put into the hands of the “newsmakers” instead of the “news organizations”, then the networks could consider charging the parties for the airtime, maybe just to cover production costs! After all, why should the networks, up to now but no longer in the business of covering actual “news”, give away free advertising time to political parties?

    And a nice bi-product of that idea is that the programs could then forego commercial breaks!

    You would think the most damning thing the Republicans did to themselves in this last debate was expose to voters the possibility that none of them were capable of answering tough questions — even from right-of-center outlets like Fox News and CNBC! — the possibility of which was ruthlessly ridiculed by the President himself (remember him?), having great fun at a Monday fundraiser:

    “Have you noticed that every one of these candidates say, ‘Obama’s weak. Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,'” Obama said …

    “Then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at the debate. Let me tell you, if you can’t handle those guys, then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you,” Obama said.

    It was pretty funny, especially those little touches left out of the above transcript. If you haven’t seen it, you need to check out the video. It’s hard to imagine any of the present Republican candidates — or even the Democratic ones, for that matter — ever being able to deliver that level of sendup.

    And even if he doesn’t necessarily have a new career in standup awaiting him, you’ve got to admit, Obama has skills and that he will be missed.

    Rick

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