June 14, 2011

On CNN's John King and thinning the GOP herd

Let me clear my throat.
CNN moderator John King took a lot of heat last night on Twitter and on conservative blogs for his debate moderation at the GOP candidates debate last night in New Hampshire. I myself joined in the King bashing. But now, on second reflection, I think critics on the right have been a little unfair to King. I also think the CNN debate format, done rapid-fire-MTV-generation style, serves a purpose beyond the obvious liberal ones. That is, provided it doesn't become the sole format for debate among GOP candidates.

To be fair to John King, he was limited by the format. He was given a specific format and a specific style (and type) of questions to ask. The fact that he kept clearing his throat (as if he were DJ Kool) and grunting was a testament to his awareness of the format. Kudos to him for trying to enforce a format not suited to the Republican style of detailed debate. On the other hand, the candidates wanted to talk. He could have afforded them the opportunity to speak. He could have gone rogue on his producers and granted considerable leeway to the candidates. Then again, John King is not a manager or a producer, he’s a talking head. Even if he is well schooled in journalism and the issues (I am certainly not vouching for him on those points) he still would be likely to stick to the script and format he was given. In other words, I don’t blame King for trying to do his job as it was laid out for him. I blame CNN.

The format of the debate seemed well suited to the liberal agenda. I’m not surprised that it was set up the way it was, given CNN’s liberal bent. That agenda consists of specific objectives. In no particular order, they include;

  • A ‘gotcha’ moment for each and every GOP candidate
  • A way to restrict the Republican talking points, particularly as they relate to the president
  • A focus on liberal social policy items to the near exclusion of conservative issues
  • Starting a battle between conservative candidates in order to draw both treasure away from the general election against Obama, and to draw blood that will allow Democrat sharks in the water a chance to pounce
  • Provide the liberal pundits cover later on by seeming unbiased in the early, less consequential debates. Later when they claim Obama mopped the floor with the GOP candidate, claims of bias can be deflected by evidence of early congeniality
  • An opportunity to divert attention away from the record of the sitting president

This we know. But that doesn’t mean that the liberal-hosted venue, CNN or otherwise can’t also serve a conservative purpose.

Let’s face it, conservatives want a substantive policy-driven debate. We need to vet our candidate for the soundness of their conservative principles and their ability to provide quality leadership for the country. We aren’t looking for the guy with the slightly raised chin and the preacher-style oration at the expense of substance. And for that purpose, we need a debate hosted by something like the Heritage Foundation (as an example).

Hopefully we’ll get some of those types of debates along the way. But those debates don’t serve another necessary purpose for the GOP candidates. In order to win, the eventual Republican nominee needs to not only have solid conservative credentials but also be electable. Ridding the nation of President Obama is a pragmatic concern – electability is as much a factor as conservative credentials this cycle. Electability requires an entirely different set of criteria be established among the candidates. Having CNN styled and hosted debates serves assessment of that purpose.

Consider the filter every GOP candidate will be exposed to the general public, not attuned to politics on a daily basis. That filter is the mainstream media. Therefore the eventual candidate will need to be media friendly. They will need to be able to speak in sound bytes. The will need to be able to communicate effectively to the public through the filter of a hostile media. The ability to do so effectively is critical to the Republican chances for victory in 2012. The ability to stand up to a liberal barrage and come out on top a la Reagan is even crucial than in Reagan’s time.

Most people’s opinions will not be informed by a Heritage policy wonk debate. Sure it matters, and highly so. But a perfect conservative candidate with no ability to navigate the waters of a hostile media is worthless to the conservative cause. So both types of debate are necessary to thin the GOP herd. Not only do we need more of these trivial, superficial, liberal-driven debates, we need a few of them to assess how candidates perform in these circumstances. Again, so long as we also get our fill of conservative style debates where the moderators shut up, step aside and let the candidates speak for themselves.

Thinning the herd requires opportunities to see both type of debates and seeing who steps up on both counts.

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