The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Limbaugh Debate

A partisan debate moderator might not be a bad idea in theory – but in practice?

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So the Republican National Committee has made good on its threat and sworn a collective blood oath not to let CNN or NBC (or their Spanish-language subsidiaries, CNN Espanol or Telemundo) cosponsor a Republican presidential primary debate in 2016. This follows the report yesterday by my old colleague Paul Bedard that conservative yakkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin are among the possible moderators for revamped debates. Is the RNC being clever here? Or nuts? The answer is yes.

First, the question of partisan moderators for primary debates: Is that in and of itself a bad thing? Actually, it's not. As Politico's Dylan Byers notes, Keith Olbermann – an outspokenly progressive television host, on MSNBC at the time – moderated a Democratic primary debate in August, 2007. It's not necessarily like having Limbaugh or Olbermann or some other outspoken partisan in the moderator seat in a general election debate, taking sides in a philosophical clash. In a partisan primary there's some sense, as Kevin Drum, Atrios and others have argued, in having someone or someones asking the questions who are in tune with the what the voters – partisans in this case – are interested in.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

In theory anyway. There would be a number of problems with it in practice, starting with the fact that given the current state of the Republican Party, putting Limbaugh or one of his ilk in charge of interrogating the potential presidential nominees could very well involve having a partisan taking sides in a philosophical clash. Limbaugh et al outspokenly support – nay, stoke – the fanatical, unrepentant faction of the GOP that fulminates over the ever-imminent betrayal of the party establishment and thinks the only resetting the party needs do to appeal to swing voters is to double down on the conservative ideas the voters rejected as recently as 2012 and 2008.

How would gun-rights fanatic Limbaugh approach Chris Christie's gun control record? Would Erick Erickson, implacably opposed to the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform, be able to even-handedly oversee a discussion of it with bill sponsor Marco Rubio? And so on.

A second, related, part of the idea of a Limbaugh-moderated debate is that it conflates the interests of the GOP with the interests of the conservative movement's entertainment-industrial complex. It's as basic as the free market: Limbaugh et al are in business to make money, not to win the GOP – or even conservatives – elections. Sometimes those interests intersect, but often, as when the policy preferences of their listeners sharply diverge from those of the swing voters who decide elections, they do not.

As The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote in a devastating indictment of the movement conservative media after the 2012 elections:

I see a coalition that has lost all perspective, partly because there's no cost to broadcasting or publishing inane bullshit. In fact, it's often very profitable. A lot of cynical people have gotten rich broadcasting and publishing red meat for movement conservative consumption.

On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

Sure the MSM thrashed the MCM when it came to the facts, but I'll wager that the rock stars of the movement conservative media felt nary a pinch in their wallets because of it.

When Limbaugh said yesterday that he's too famous to moderate a GOP debate, Hot Air's Allahpundit speculated that a Limbaugh debate would become a distraction because it would give the left a "pretext to revisit last year's 'war on women' crapola, this time in the context of the GOP likely facing a woman nominee in Hillary[Clinton]." Perhaps. But the bigger danger isn't that Limbaugh's greatest hits might be revisited but that he might add to them in the course of the debate. Which Republican candidate wants to either speak out against the conservative icon or sit mutely by when he denounces someone as a "slut" for daring to use birth control?

Steve Benen sums up the potential problem of fanatical conservatives grilling Republican candidates while the nation – or at least Democratic ad-makers with DVRs – watches:

The epistemic closure that's helped to define the party's discourse in recent years will have an even more impenetrable dome -- far-right candidates will field far-right questions from far-right loudmouths, all in the hopes of impressing far-right voters. And if the goal is to be elected the leader of a far-right club in a far-right treehouse, all of this would seem quite rational.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Donald Trump.]

In the end the debates-debate is ado about much less than meets the eye. As Allahpundit notes in a separate post:

The RNC's goal here isn't to strike a blow against media bias. That's window-dressing for grassroots conservatives, just as the whispers about letting Rush Limbaugh host a debate were. The point is to cut down the number of debates, which will reduce the opportunities for strong establishment candidates to make embarrassing gaffes and reduce the opportunities for strong tea-party candidates to leap in the polls with winning debate performances.

The concern about the number of debates and their effects is real and not necessarily aimed at "strong tea-party candidates" to the benefit of establishment types. Right now the likely GOP field is led by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida – that's two tea partiers and, in Rubio, a once-and-wannabe tea partier. Cutting down the number of debates isn't aimed at crippling them but rather at minimizing the circus flare-ups from the 2016 iterations of Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.

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