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Something Rotten at the CNN Debate

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Tonight’s Republican Primary Debate was the best run debate we’ve had so far. The structure was better and Wolf Blitzer managed the back and forth between the candidates more effectively than past moderators have done. This made it more of a real debate, but my enjoyment was tainted by a nagging awareness that the eight candidates standing on the stage did not really represent the diversity of the Republican Party. I had to ask myself why the Republican Party of Florida and Tea Party Express allowed CNN to pick some candidates and exclude others based on arbitrary criteria which seem to serve their interests and not those of Republicans or the nation.

This was not a debate between candidates who represent Republican voters, but rather a debate between candidates hand picked by the media to play out their fictional version of what a Republican primary campaign should be like and what kind of candidates represent the factions within the Republcian Party. Weak Republican leaders have allowed the media to effectively take control of this election and pick which candidates we are allowed to see and ultimately who we can vote for.

At the heart of this problem is the systematic exclusion of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson from every debate since the first one in South Carolina. Governor Johnson is as well qualified as anyone on the debate stage. He has an exemplary record as a two term governor in a swing state. He is the only governor in the race who still has the support of a majority of his home state voters. He comes from a business background and built a multi-million dollar company from nothing. He has one of the best defined issue agendas of any candidate. He has an active campaign with state organizations nationwide and a prominent presence in New Hampshire where he’s currently focusing his efforts.

Johnson has everything it should take to be a leading candidate, but for some reason the media seems to have singled him out for exclusion. Are they ignoring Johnson for not fitting their definition of a Republican because he’s not pro-war, pro-bailout and religiously conservative? Do they think having two libertarian-leaning candidates legitimizes that movement too much and might get either Johnson or Ron Paul elected? Are they afraid that as a candidate who strongly appeals to independents and crossover voters he’s too dangerous to Obama?

No one really understands their motivation, but their shunning of Johnson is blatantly transparent and became offensively obvious with this latest debate. Prior to this debate the trick for excluding Johnson was that he wasn’t scoring high enough in enough polls to qualify, a result which was accomplished by just not including his name in most of the polls and then claiming that even though he met the criteria in the polls he was in, he didn’t do well enough in the polls from which he was excluded. I know it sounds crazy, but this really was the argument made by NBC and Fox in the two previous debates.

In tonight’s debate CNN added a new twist. Up until two weeks ago they had been including Johnson in their polls, and while he wasn’t in the top tier, he was scoring a respectable 2 or 3 percent consistently. In their last poll before the debate Johnson scored higher than Rick Santorum and John Huntsman and tied Herman Cain. Yet despite this, CNN invited those three candidates to participate and did not invite Johnson to the debate. They could not be swayed by emails, letters or phonecalls from Johnson’s supporters. Then, as the jesters cap on this political farce, they dropped him fromt the list of candidates in the poll they took right before the debate, and in the results for that poll they removed him from the comparison listing from previous polls and replaced him with “someone else.”

Frankly, I cannot imagine a more deliberate or more obvious attempt to manipulate the primary process and effectively terminate a candidacy through the power of the media. As a Republican I find the idea that the media should exercise this sort of power over a primary which determines the future of the party and of the nation to be terrifying. Treat a candidate like he doesn’t exist and chances are that he will go away. It was troubling enough when the Democrats did it to George McGovern, but to have a media which isn’t even sympathetic to the interests of the GOP doing it is scandalous.

But where is the outrage? Why is RNC Chairman Reince Priebus not descending on Atlanta with an army of lawyers? There seems to be a passive approval of CNN’s meddling in the election from the party establishment, because they fear the challenge to their corrupt and ineffective leadership that Johnson represents. As a governor Johnson proved that he could govern without relying on special interests and corrupt bargains, and they know that the days of party insiders brokering elections and fattening their wallets at the expense of the people and in disregard to the grassroots would be numbered if Johnson was elected.

It’s likely that Johnson’s crime is that he is too good a candidate with ideas which are too likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and the forces of the status quo in the media and in the party would just as soon not have him challenging their supremacy. They can tolerate Ron Paul because he has no history of accomplishment and can be dismissed as a bit squirrely and academic – he may stir up the rabble but he probably can’t win the election and if he did he’s such an ideologue he’d be unable to get anything done. What they can’t tolerate is is the threat of a younger, more dynamic and less easily marginalized pro-liberty reformer like Johnson. Johnson has a record of successful reform, has no skeletons in his closet and has practical solutions and the ability to be pragmatic enough to get them passed.

Johnson is the real thing, and like Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater before him, the elites of the media and the party have aligned against him. He’s too dangerous to be given a fair chance in a debate, and we’ve seen a corresponding dearth of coverage in the media when compared to lower polling candidates like Huntsman and Santorum. He is a threat to the status quo cannot be tolerated by the establishment or their media allies.

The debates are grand theatre and the people love their bread and circuses, but as Republicans and as voters we should to be outraged and we ought to demand better.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Glenn Contrarian

    Just wondering. Thanks.

  • Arch Conservative

    Who do I support for president?

    Why Ron Paul of course. Who the hell else would I support?

  • Hey, and Ricky has a direct pipeline to god. Unbeatable.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Hey – Arch and I agree on something! Who do you support for president, Arch? And I promise I won’t use it as an opportunity to do the ‘gotcha’ thing in this thread.

  • Arch Conservative

    Rick Perry reminds me of a used car salesman. I bet he reeks of stale cigars and Wild Turkey.

  • Glenn:

    Sure. And that’s why I said the newspapers were “partisan;” I didn’t call them “ideological.”

  • Glenn Contrarian

    But that was also back in the day that “Democrat” and “Republican” did NOT automatically mean “liberal” or “conservative”. It wasn’t until the conservative southern Democrats either retired or lost elections (or changed party) in the decade following the Civil Rights Act that a party became largely (but not totally) synonymous with political philosophy.

  • 23:

    Also, newspapers back then were openly partisan. They did not even pretend to be objective. One of their main purposes was to disseminate party propaganda.

    I believe that’s why we have newspapers with odd names like “Democrat and Chronicle” and “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.” But I could be wrong about that. Anyone know for sure?

  • Of course, this was also an age wherein pols were apt to write and deliver speeches of 2 or 3 or 4 hours in length.

    On the assumption that the journalists in attendance would dutifully copy down verbatim and reprint in their newspapers your entire speech, this was, of course, a much cheaper way of propagating your political platform than printing manifestos yourself.

  • I have just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” It is rather long, but nevertheless, a very good read.

    One thing I was struck by was how so many people would travel from distant places to see and hear the Lincoln/Douglas and other political debates of the time. Of course, it stands to reason with their having no other means except perhaps newspapers with which to keep abreast of what was happening in the political sphere. The debates were big events anticipated and attended by literally thousands of people.

    Of course, this was also an age wherein pols were apt to write and deliver speeches of 2 or 3 or 4 hours in length. William Seward gave many such speeches in Congress. Nevertheless, they too would draw as many people as could be accommodated in the public seating in the as yet unfinished Capital with many more left outside. Can you imagine sitting through a 4 hour political speech? Thanks be to Gilligan.

  • Telemann – Good comment. I have so far only read snippets of de Tocqueville. Perhaps I will take the plunge as you did.

  • Telemann


    Early this year I began reading the famous book by the young French nobleman who observed America in 1831: “Democracy in America”. I had heard and seen many citations about it – mainly the good and unique qualities he noted in the United States. These included, above all, intense commitment to democracy and equality, as well as Americans’ resourcefulness, openness, and ability to forge cooperative associations for mutual benefit, etc.

    By the way, De Tocqueville was a clear and effective writer – and his narratives abound in sound bites. When I actually read the original which was dually published by De Tocqueville in both French and English I was simultaneously excited, and shocked and chilled.

    Why shocked? Because it was clear that De Tocqueville had written a balanced account that included negative aspects – for which he apologized, but felt that Americans needed to be informed. All those criticisms ad either been laundered out in my earlier exposures – or I had ignored them (I think it was the former). That’s another feature of Americans that he reported – dislike of criticism.

    De Tocqueville recounts that his very first observations after he got off the boat from France were that the people,”the governed” had merit, but the politicians (“the governing”) did not. It was worse than that. There were people with vision in society, but voters systematically avoided electing them to political office, except in times of crisis.

    What voters wanted was politicians who served their local needs and told them what they wanted to hear. Beyond that, they were attracted to colorful, charismatic speakers. Well, what else is new? Recent polls affirm that Americans with a margin of more than 70% like their local Congressman but have a record low respect for Congress!

    The chilling news is that we can throw the current rascals out – but the people will come right back and vote another set of rascals in. The problem may be directly with the politicians -but the root problem is the voting public.

    Under ordinary circumstances then, the most qualified and balanced candidates among Republicans, like Huntsman and especially Romney would not have a chance. But these are not ordinary times. People are getting scared. Under such circumstances, for example, in the Revolutionary War, De Tocqueville stated that people wanted and accepted leaders of substance. But he noted that since that time there had been systematic decline in statesmanship.

    There is another problem. The voters in the Revolutionary war period were probably better informed and had better judgment about things that counted than those of today -notwithstanding the limited media and availability of books.

    De Tocqueville provides startling evidence that much in the American national character hasn’t changed much. He offers perhaps the best assessment of national strengths and weaknesses available from any source. We’ve suffered because of the latter in terms of unnecessary crises and the bad consequences of alternately ignoring and overreacting to problems for more than two hundred years. Maybe we need to decide that the nation has lost its safety margin and can’t afford the luxury of mistakes any longer.

  • Unlike British politicians, Americans have [personalities].

    Not really, Herr Baron – they have, as you sort of admit one sentence later, the Hollywood version of personalities.

    Perry might have been partial to portraying himself as the Scourge of Social Security lately, but he changed his tune rather smartly when faced with the potential wrath of a million fossilized Floridians.

    You are, unfortunately, correct that the era of great British political personalities has long gone, with just a few elderly relics (e.g. Norman Tebbit, Tony Benn or Denis Skinner a.k.a. “The Beast of Bolsover”) still lingering on the punditry circuit, the Commons back benches and in the Lords to remind us of the heyday when prominent political figures were as large as life and recognisable as any TV, movie or radio star.

    No-one could have accused the likes of Wilson, Thatcher, Foot, Heseltine, Healey or Paisley of not having a personality.

    The decline, I think, started with the election of the gormless Neil Kinnock as leader of the Labour Party in the mid-80s, continued with the rise of the insipid John Major to the prime ministership, gathered pace under the smug supervision of Blair and reached its nadir with the advent of Gordon Brown, a man with all the charisma of a tax form.

    Cameron does at least occasionally show a few signs of life, but really he’s just another rent-a-suit like everyone else in Westminster these days.

  • Of course, that being said, it is just those things that doom him to oblivion.

  • I wouldn’t say that I am on Huntsman’s side. However, I find him far less offensive and dangerous than most of the rest. He’s a moderate and he actually believes in science!

  • Baronius

    Heh. If you’ve got Lake and Baritone on your side, how could you possibly lose the Republican nomination?

  • I had a (sort of) good word for Huntsman.

    Again, I ask, how many candidates in these debates can be accommodated? As it is with, what, 8 candidates only 2 or 3 of them get any real time. I think CNN & other sponsors include the likes of Cain, Paul & Bachmann for the entertainment value. Any of them are likely to come up with some crazy bullshit that’ll make the funny clips on the next day’s pundit shows. Romney will always be doomed to be someone else’s straight man. Perry is bat shit crazy, but is nevertheless the favored flavor of the month. Even the supposed “intellectual” of the bunch, The Newtster, comes up with some crazy shit now and again.

    While Romney may wind up with the nomination, the teabaggers may be so discombobulated that they might run their own candidate. Frankly, I hope they do. Or, should Perry, or even Bachmann, actually grab the GOP gold ring, the moderates just might take a peek across the aisle.

  • John Lake

    Ron Paul did mention the preemptive invasion of Iraq. Beyond that he couldn’t possible be president. Neither he, nor Cain seemed to be up on Ponzi. The ideal candidate needs to be so middle of the road that it hurts. A little conservative, a little conventional liberal, a touch of libertarian. Just a touch. I just defined Huntsman. He gets 2%, and nobody has a good word for him.

  • I find the bulk of criticism launched at Dave rather misguided. For one thing, why should the debates between presidential candidates at this stage of the game be limited only to “credible” candidates? Isn’t there time enough to go through the sifting process to make the decision further down the line?

    Ron Paul doesn’t have a chance in hell to become the Republican nominee (as evidenced, for example, by the reaction he got from the majority of the audience to his realistic take on 9/11 and the aftermath), and yet, his presence has surely been a plus. So what’s wrong with these debates serving as a platform for airing interesting, if not controversial ideas? We’re in enough of a pickle in terms of the present economic crisis and unprecedented low morale to be eager at least to listen to new ideas because age-old solutions surely no longer work. Dave’s intent here is not to be faulted.

    Where I do think, however, he misses the boat, is when it comes to affixing the blame. It’s not the media but the Tea Party that is trying to hijack this election, and thus far, they’ve been in control. So it would seem the GOP, in the traditional sense, has quite a fight on its hands.

  • Baronius

    Dread, I do think you underestimate the role of personalities in American politics. Unlike British politicians, Americans have them. OK, maybe “have” is the wrong word. Personalities are like tuxes. If they don’t have one, they rent one during the campaign. And unless it’s a terrible fit (angry Pawlenty, family-values Newt) we pretend we don’t notice.

  • Baronius

    Oops. I didn’t see #9. I guess Dread gets the point.

  • Baronius

    And if he did get onstage for a debate, what would happen? He’d get three questions, tops. A moderator should be fired if he asks more than three questions to a low-level candidate. One would be about weed. One would be something along the line of, aren’t you too far outside the mainstream. And there would be one about ending the wars. He’d butt in on one question about the budget and say something reasonable but not noteworthy. One candidate would score off him with a drug joke. It’s hard to see that overall performance boosting him in the polls above “Margin of Error”.

    Personally, I think there should be more debates, ones with different mixes and formats. I understand there’s software that can link everyone’s computers together, and maybe someone could use that.

    And Dread misses the point. This guy, and I’ve already forgotten his name, let me page up a second, Johnson, doesn’t have low numbers because of any weakness among liberty/libertarian types. His numbers only confirm what should have been obvious beforehand: he’s not the guy.

  • Baronius, Dave has for some time been fielding angry emails from William of Occam demanding to know what the hell he did with the perfectly good razor he lent him.

    You’re correct that an imaginative and energetic candidate with appealing ideas ought to be able to circumvent GOP and media insider indifference and still gain traction – especially in the age of the Internet.

    Ron Paul, after all, isn’t exactly flavour of the month in the Elephant Paddock either and yet he regularly gets invited to these debates – because he’s made himself visible via a robust grassroots movement propagated mainly online.

  • Baronius

    Every time I read this article (let’s face it, it’s the same as several others), I’m struck by two problems that I just can’t get past. First of all, there’s no reason given for the slight other than something vague about “them” trying to keep “us” down. The obvious explanation, his low ranking, seems a better explanation.

    Secondly, it doesn’t seem like that great an obstacle for a strong candidate to overcome. There are a lot more unfair hits that a candidate takes, and there are some fair hits that candidates inexplicably don’t take.

  • Great article, Dave. I agree. Both Johnson and former Governor Buddy Roemer should have been invited. They are both credible presidential candidates with interesting ideas.

    They are, in my opinion, both more qualified than either Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, both of whom are regularly invited to these debates.

  • I thought that podium was reserved for the obligatory empty suit.


    But Gary Johnson WAS there, he’s just invisible. Look at the photo, at the middle podium…

  • As for the Tea Party, most of them aren’t libertarians either. They support Small Government for the sole reason that it means fewer taxes and consequently heavier wallets. They would still prefer their Small Government to have the capability to force everyone to conform to their narrow set of values.

  • Indeed: this is exactly what Dave seems to be unable to get his head around. The GOP is shifting rightwards (or at least the noisiest voices in it are). There is no grassroots Liberty Republican takeover, despite the comforting illusion of such Dave has acquired from surrounding himself with such folks.

    As history shows us, at times of great stress it’s not the moderates who win out, it’s the extremists.

  • RT

    Why would Reince Priebus and the RNC be at all outraged by Johnson’s exclusion? Priebus and the RNC, along with media types like Drew Cline and Joe McQuaid, are precisely the coterie conspiring to concoct “Gary Johnson rules” and the like.

    Unfortunately, the Republican party has shifted dramatically rightward and, even in these times of economic trouble, the focus remains on increased militarism and rabid social conservatism. Ron Paul is openly scorned by the “elites” of the Republican party due for his views, so I leave it to your imagination as what the establishment feels about Johnson, who lacks Paul’s social conservative credentials.

    The reality is that the Democratic party is now producing far more credible candidates for Libertarian leaning independents with leaders like Andrew Cuomo and even Rahm Emmanuel than the Republican party. The Republican party is fast becoming the party of the rapacious, irresponsible, unprincipled rich, as embodied by Romney, and ignorant religious zealots, as typified by Bachmann. Gary Johnson would find the modern Democratic party far more receptive to his views and ideas than the current incarnation of the Republican party, which has become a caricature of itself through a series of ideological purity tests.

  • You always expect people to be outraged about everything. The chances are that CNN and other media omitted Johnson for the same reason they didn’t include uh, let’s see – Andy Martin, Thad McCotter, Jimmy McMillan, Tom Miller, Buddy Roemer or Vern Wuensche. They are also declared candidates for the Rep nomination. When does the cast of characters get too large? How could anyone expect to get to everybody in any meaningful way within the 90 minute or 2 hour time frame of most of these debates? As it was, there were probably at least 3 of those who were included who shouldn’t have been, as they don’t have a snowball’s chance including Cain, Santorum and probably Gingrich. I actually rather like Huntsman, but he too will likely never get beyond single digits. As it looks now, you are stuck with your favorite son – Ricky P., Mitt, Bachmann and maybe 1 or 2 more, just to make it uh, interesting, yeah that’s the ticket – interesting.