No more Stephanopoulos? RNC wants role in picking 2016 primary debate moderators

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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When conservatives complain about the harm that the endless debate schedule had on the 2012 Republican primary candidates, the conversation often turns to the hosts and the moderators.

Why are Republican candidates letting someone like ABC’s George Stephanopoulos — a former aide to Democrat Bill Clinton — ask them “gotcha questions” during a GOP primary?

Why are GOP presidential hopefuls agreeing to meet for a debate hosted by an outlet like MSNBC, a cable network that has increasingly grown hostile to Republicans as it self-identifies as a liberal news network?

As the Republican Party released a 100-page report on Monday about what the party can do better to win elections, committee members are recommending that the Republican National Committee step in to regulate these televised showdowns come 2016.

And RNC chairman Reince Priebus told The Daily Caller that the party does not only want to reduce the number of debates. The RNC, he said, also wants to explore the possibility of choosing who actually asks the questions during the debates.

“I think the party should have more control over who moderates, and we should have more control over the partners,” Priebus told TheDC. “And if we can come up with a mechanism to take more control over the debate processes, that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

During a press availability, Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, told TheDC that choosing moderators is “possible” but “complicated.” Fleischer helped lead the committee of those who helped draft the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project report released Monday.

“At its core, the debates have to be hard hitting, they have to be credible,” he said. “Whoever the moderators are, they got to be independent. … They also have to be fair.”

In a separate interview, Fleischer said Republicans could even consider asking non-journalists like respected Republican strategist Ed Gillespie to moderate.

“What if Ed Gillespie moderated the debate and drilled candidates with questions that are legitimate and hard-hitting?” he asked.

But Fleischer admitted that taking complete control of the debates could be risky and counterproductive. In the case the RNC decides to host the debates themselves, he said “it could cost between half a million and a million dollars per debate.”

“It’s a very expensive thing to do,” Fleischer said. “It also doesn’t come with a guarantee that anybody would broadcast it in its entirety, so it’s a risky thing to do.”

Under that scenario, Fleischer also said some networks might opt against airing the debate if a moderator comes from another network, which would defeat the purpose of the debates.

“In my opinion, there’s no point of taking the debates back if we keep them to ourselves,” he said. “The purpose of the the debate is to have it aired on TV for multiple millions of people to watch and therefore we have to work cooperatively with our broadcast partners.”

In his remarks before journalists Monday, Priebus lamented that in 2008 and 2012, “the debates multiplied and were out of the control of the RNC.”

“This cycle there were 20 total debates — the first, eight months before the Iowa caucuses,” he said. “The report contrasts this with 1980, when there were six debates and ’88, when there were seven.”

“So with an eye toward the recommendations, the RNC will create a system that sets earlier guidelines for a more rational number of debates,” he said. “We will take a leading role in organizing the debates — and will work with state parties and our rules committee to ensure balance in every aspect.”

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