GOP 2016 Debates Already Feeling the Hillary Effect

Posted: Aug 09, 2013 12:01 AM

I’m trying hard not to obsess about the 2016 presidential campaign. The election is more than three years away, the campaigns two years away from kicking off in earnest.

But two things keep jamming thoughts of Sweet ’16 to the front of my mind: one, I live for the opportunity to bring the noxious Obama era to an end, and two, the storylines for that year are taking bold shape right now.

This has happened before. There was Reagan presidential buzz in 1977, George W. Bush presidential buzz in 1997, Obama presidential buzz in 2005. We lament our long, drawn-out campaigns, but the fact is that once one election ends, we become junkies for the next one.

So I give in.

I am all in for talk of the establishment vs. libertarian populist wings of Republican aspirations, all in for speculation over tea party influence over the field, all in for evaluating how much to fear Hillary.

And that means I am pleased to weigh in on this week’s dust-up over plans at NBC and CNN to air special programs about Mrs. Clinton just as her presidential storyline thickens.

Let’s start with the business basics. I totally understand why NBC loves the idea of a Hillary miniseries with Diane Lane as the star, and why CNN fancies the notion of a huge documentary on the highest-caliber woman in the history of American politics. It’s about ratings. It’s about money. Both programs would be big hits.

But with what effect? Conservatives properly observe that this is the zillionth example of media bias, a craven love offering to a candidate both networks would love to see installed as our 45th president.

But in an ironic twist, fallen ex-conservative David Brock has peered out of his dank Media Matters cave to say his leftist lapdog group is also cool to the idea of those shows.


Brock may have become ideologically unhinged, but he shows a ray of interesting insight in this regard. The last thing Hillary may need is an air of seeming inevitability, so obviously lofted by the fawning love of the dominant media culture. After the Obama decade, even Democrats may grow weary of Hollywood and Big Media anointing a nominee for them.

This is probably not crippling to the massive locomotive that is the potential Hillary candidacy. Fairly or not, she is the dominant force for the Democrats in 2016, and no one else is remotely close.

I can’t even begin to calculate the Republican ticket that can beat her. It may not exist.

But what if she eventually wears the stain of Benghazi or some other scandal? What if it occurs to some that a term and a half as an average Senator and four years as Secretary of State under a weak President may not be the most stellar résumé?

I know I’m dreaming here. Even more than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is a candidate who arrives with a narrative package that outshines her employment history. Her historic near-nomination in 2008, her rock-star status among Democrats who still wish she had won, her singular if curious symbolism as the accomplished Democrat woman of our day-- all of these are formidable cards to play in a White House run.

This means Republicans have to play very nearly mistake-free ball, an almost impossible concept to imagine after the last two elections.

But maybe part of that needed wisdom involves getting serious three years out about what we do and how we do it.

The debates, as always, will be vital. And this week, RNC chairman Reince Priebus showed some admirable toughness, essentially telling NBC and CNN: you go ahead and make your adulatory Hillary shows. But stand warned that you may not be awarded a single Republican debate in 2016.

In this, he has arrived at a destination we should have reached long ago. By what twisted logic do we hand over the debate reins to networks who hate us?

In what peculiar universe do we task ourselves with finding the right kind of conservative by seating panels of diehard liberals to dog the candidates with inane accusatory questions?

How about this: No single moderators, so no sabotage by future Candy Crowleys. Panels of three work well, with two actual conservatives and one liberal-- I actually like the occasional challenging question to allow our hopefuls to develop parrying skills.

None of the panelists would be employed by the network airing the debate. The debate rights would be sold to the networks, who would enjoy the audience boost, but not the opportunity for their golden boys or girls to earn cheap points with adversarial showboating.

Imagine that. Candidates taking most of the debate questions from people who might actually vote for them. For anyone thinking this would be a softball tournament, please-- we’re Republicans. We love to nitpick each other to death. Make one panelist a national security hawk and another a Rand Paul privacy devotee, and the candidates may actually yearn for George Stephanopoulos to walk out and pepper them with contraceptive questions.

All of this is a long way off, but in November of 2008 and 2012, it felt as though Republican strategies had been cobbled together in the previous 90 days.

Whether we face Hillary or someone else, we had better have our act together, with an upbeat, unapologetic conservative with solid communications gifts to relate the advantages of a Republican rescue from a Democrat-dominated Washington.

CNN’s own Erin Burnett actually suggested this week to Priebus that her network’s Hillary hagiography might actually contain some unflattering elements. Maybe in a frame or two, on matters of no consequence.

But I have to hand it to CNN’s actual news coverage in recent days: they have become downright aggressive in identifying the administration’s post-Benghazi spin as “inconsistent,” “conflicting” and “inaccurate.”

Keep this up, and if CNN actually airs a 2016 GOP debate, we might even let them supply a questioner.