Republicans debate their debates: Wimpy candidates, weak party

     Chris Christie is shown at the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado on Oct. 28. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    Chris Christie is shown at the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado on Oct. 28. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    Two years ago, after the GOP had lost the popular vote for the fifth time in six presidential elections, the Republican National Committee autopsied the corpse and proposed a long list of cures. This sane suggestion appeared on page 76:

    “The Republican party needs to stop talking to itself. 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.”

    But, as we well know, these folks are not fast learners. The ’16 presidential candidates are so upset about the debates, about the so-called “gotcha” questions, that now they’re trying to rewrite the rules of engagement — to ensure that the party will talk only to itself, with ideological reinforcement from like-minded people.

    Most, but not all, candidates have signed onto a list of demands drafted on Sunday — demands like: moderators shall not raise an issue and ask for a show of hands, moderators shall not ask yes or no questions, moderators shall not encourage candidate-to-candidate exchanges — and various individual candidates have their own bright ideas. Ted Cruz says that all questioners should first demonstrate/prove that they’ve voted in Republican primaries. Donald Trump, who has his own list of demands, says that Telemundo, the Latino news outlet, should be dropped as the co-sponsor of a scheduled February debate.

    Naturally, the Republican candidates are happy that Fox Business (cousin of Fox News) is sponsoring the next debate, slated for Friday night. If only all their engagements could stay within the conservative bubble. For instance, they loved the moment, during the second GOP debate, when right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewitt punctuated one of his questions with a burst of cheerleading: “I think all of you are more qualified than former Secretary of State Clinton.” That’s the kind of bubblethink they crave more of.

    It’s amazing, really. These candidates all think they’re tough enough to take on Vladimir Putin, yet they’re too whiny to take on disagreeable press questions. Boo hoo, what a bunch of wimps. It’s hard to work up sympathy. In the immortal words of Mr. Pink, the Reservoir Dogs thief who rubbed his thumb against his forefinger, “You know what this is? The world’s smallest violin.”

    But what’s most striking about this incipient revolt against gotcha questions — Republicans apparently define “gotcha” as any question that seeks to hold a candidate accountable for lies, contradictions, and fantasy economic math — is what it says about the weakness of party headquarters. The Republican National Committee is supposed to power the party engine. It took on the task of organizing the ’16 debates, slashing the number of events and banning liberal sponsors like MSNBC, with the stated intention of leading the party to a brighter future. As chairman Reince Priebus promised last year, “Our debates will be good for our candidates and for voters.”

    Alas, the inmates are now demanding to run the asylum. They want to sideline the RNC — along with the RNC’s plea that Republicans stop “talking to itself” at the expense of expanding their appeal. The deeper problem, of course, is that there are way too many candidates, and party headquarters is powerless to cull the herd. Back in the distant days of party discipline, upstart Senate newbies would’ve been told to wait their turn (“Cruz, so far your only accomplishments are running your mouth and shutting down the government”), and a credential-free poseur like Ben Carson would’ve been told to run for city council before presuming to think he could start at the top. And they would’ve obeyed.

    What’s happening now, on the debate front, is just the latest manifestation of the party’s general chaos. The Trump, Fiorina, Kasich, and Christie campaigns are now refusing to endorse the other campaigns’ shared demands. It’s not worth detailing who wants what, because the entire revolt could collapse at any time. But I do want to laud Chris Christie, who has spent the last few days calling out the wimps. Granted, he’s low in the polls and thus free to say anything that might give him a lift. But he also happens to be right.

    A sampling of his remarks:

    “Why are we wasting time whining and bickering over this? …. For us to be sitting around and wasting our time – let’s just show up (for debates) and do what we do …. The presidency is almost never scripted, so we shouldn’t have these debates scripted, either …. I’m not one of these guys that’s going to sit around and complain about this, OK. If you can’t take it, on the stage, no matter whether it’s fair or unfair, and I thought there was a lot of unfair stuff the other night — but if you can’t take it, then how are you going to take running against Hillary Clinton …?”

    Better yet, there’s Peter Johnson Jr. He’s a veteran Fox News analyst who’s reputedly close to Fox chairman Roger Ailes. He surfaced yesterday on a Fox show, and voiced this warning: “At some point, the Republican candidates are going to look weaselly and weak if they continue on this parade.”

    That point is now.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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