The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
He’s running for president as an outsider, seeking the nomination of a party to which he has never had more than tenuous connections. For some time now, he’s been running far stronger in the polls than anyone expected. He could even win Iowa. Yesterday he announced that he would not take part in a planned debate.
His name is Bernie Sanders. From the New York Times:
Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Senator Bernie Sanders, said on Tuesday evening that Mr. Sanders did not want to participate in an unsanctioned debate next month because he could risk being denied participation in future debates.
The debate would be held Feb. 4 in New Hampshire, five days before the state’s primary. It would be sponsored by MSNBC and The New Hampshire Union Leader, which announced that the “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and the MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow would moderate the debate.
Sanders isn’t the first candidate this year to beg off a debate. Two weeks ago, as the Washington Post reported, Rand Paul decided to boycott a Fox Business Network debate when dipping poll numbers relegated him to the early forum for overflow candidates. (Paul’s polling performance has recovered to the point that he will be on the main stage in tomorrow night’s Fox News Channel debate.)
And this sort of thing has happened in years past. In 2011 a Republican primary debate was canceled because only two candidates agreed to participate. (More on this in a moment.) Bloomberg notes that “Ronald Reagan did not attend a Republican debate ahead of the 1980 Iowa caucuses.” Reagan lost Iowa to George Bush but still made it to the top of the ticket.
In September of the same year, President Carter told the League of Women Voters to take a hike after it invited a third-party candidate to participate; the resulting Reagan-Anderson debate was one of the less consequential chapters in American political history. Once John Anderson’s balloon deflated, the League held a Reagan-Carter debate, six days before the election.
All of which is to say that it’s not all that unusual for candidates to decide, whether for strategic reasons or personal ones, to decline invitations to debate. But Donald Trump’s actions don’t have to be especially drastic to be dramatic.
As you might have heard, Trump announced on Tuesday that he won’t participate in Thursday’s Fox News debate. The news appeared on page A1 of the New York Times; by contrast, Sanders’s nonparticipation doesn’t appear to have made the print edition at all (the link at the top is from a Times blog). Trump had said he objected to the presence on the debate panel of Megyn Kelly, who opened last August’s debate with a harsh (and in our view entirely reasonable) question about what she characterized as the candidate’s disrespectful comments about women.
When Fox backed Kelly, Trump backed out. That prompted all manner of histrionic commentary, especially from anti-Trump Republicans and conservatives—little of which withstands analytic scrutiny.
The Washington Examiner quotes Trump’s top rival, Ted Cruz, who said to applause at an Iowa rally: “Apparently Megyn Kelly is really, really scary, and Donald is a fragile soul. If she asks him mean questions, I mean his hair might stand on end.” This columnist’s Twitter feed last night was filled with variations on the theme of Trump as scaredy-cat; sometimes emphasizing that Kelly is a “girl” so as to imply Trump’s supposed fear was psychosexual.
There’s no question Kelly got under Trump’s skin back in August and remained there after the debate. But he parried her question effectively, and at any rate irritation is a very different emotion from fear. One suspects Trump would gladly participate in the debate if he thought it in his interests to do so.
In 2012, conservatives were furious at CNN moderator Candy Crowley for (in their view) running interference for President Obama on Benghazi during a debate with Mitt Romney. If CNN were to propose Crowley as a moderator for a general-election debate this fall and the Republican nominee (be that Trump, Cruz or anyone else) balked, it’s hard to imagine conservatives would subject the nominee to similar mockery.
Another theme was that Trump’s withdrawal gives the lie to his claim to be a great negotiator. Fox itself suggested as much in its initial statement rejecting the demand to dump Kelly, quoted in that Times front-pager:
“We learned from a secret back channel,” the statement said, “that the ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president—a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
Again, this rather misses the point. Kelly was not a party to any negotiations; rather, her participation in the debate was the point of dispute between Trump and Fox (and a nonnegotiable point according to both parties’ public statements).
A willingness to walk away from the table rather than yield to an unacceptable demand is usually a sign of strength, not weakness. During the Iran negotiations, conservatives rightly recognized that reaching a bad deal is worse than failing to reach a deal.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin ponders all this and reaches more or less the right conclusion:
The best we can surmise is that this is a classic power move, putting himself in a class by himself while the candidates behind him squabble among themselves. He’s bigger than Fox! Bigger than debates! At the very least, most of the news cycle will be taken up by discussion over why he is not showing up. Moderators will be compelled to ask other candidates about him even if he is not there. In a Trumpian election, it sort of makes sense. He is in control.
To put it another way, Trump calculated that he had more to gain from making a stand than from participating in yet another debate. One way of understanding this is as an application of Saul Alinsky’s seventh rule: “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
Still another accusation is that Trump is a hypocrite. It turns out—and we had forgotten about this—that back in 2011, Newsmax had tapped Trump to moderate a Republican primary debate. As Politico reported at the time, the plan was scrapped when only two candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, agreed to participate.
Somebody dug up the video of a December 2011 Fox News interview with Trump during that kerfuffle. It is very funny to watch; here, courtesy of National Review’s Jim Geraghty, is the best bit:
In an interview with Megyn Kelly—pause for irony—Trump said, “We’re not seeing a lot of courage here, are we? Not lots of courage, these Republicans. They’re supposed to be brave.” He went on to add, “Say what you want about Newt, Newt heard about the debate, ‘I want to do it.’ So there’s a certain courage or confidence or something.”
We’ll give Geraghty irony, but hypocrisy? He doesn’t use the H-word but hints at it, marveling at “how dramatically people’s views can change in a five-year span.”
Trump took a different position then because he was in a different position—a prospective debate moderator as opposed to a candidate. He made an opposite argument because he was pursuing an opposite objective. There’s no question of principle here, only of tactics and goals; accusing him of hypocrisy is like calling an investor a hypocrite because he buys low but sells high.
The most bewildering argument comes from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. “There’s something bigger going down here,” Wemple claims. “Momentous even”:
The right-wing penchant for nonstop media criticism is swerving across the median, zigzagging around the road, about to wrap itself around that oak tree around the curve. Like other planks of the conservative canon—e.g., foreign-policy hawkishness—it has been invoked and ultimately abused by Trump. Such that it can no longer stand on its own.
Into this tradition of media criticism stomped Trump’s presidential campaign. Whereas previous practitioners of the critique looked for quite specific signs of bias in the media, Trump has found bias or misconduct in just about anything that has been critical of him. . . .
The ironies here are circular. Over the years, Fox News has boosted its own ratings by frequently airing accusations of media bias. Now its ratings—at least for Thursday night’s debate—stand to suffer over just such an accusation. . . . And the National Review got tossed from hosting a February debate because it dared to exercise its prerogative as an opinion journal to editorialize against Trump.
Fox News, of course, will be fine; it has ruled cable news ratings for the last decade and a half and will continue doing so. Trump, of course, will be fine; he has money and insouciance and ignorance. Media criticism, though, may need a round or two of therapy.
Again, we can see the irony, and it’s certainly true that Trump’s dispute with Fox (among others) does not fit the conventional conservatives-vs.-liberal-media mold. But Fox News has been around for almost 20 years, and there have been significant alternatives to the so-called mainstream media since at least the late 1980s, when conservative talk radio started taking off. That doesn’t vitiate criticisms of the MSM, which if anything have responded by becoming even more liberal, or at least less circumspect about the appearance and reality of bias.
In its statement responding to Trump’s withdrawal from the debate, Fox declared: “Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards.” Although Fox’s ratings may be lower without Trump, the network is accomplishing something by taking its stand. He has given it an opportunity to demonstrate that liberals have no monopoly on journalistic independence.
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