This Thursday, September 22, the eight candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination will square off in Orlando, Florida at the Fox News/Google debate.
In preparing to watch and analyze this first of a kind debate – with video questions coming from Americans through Google -- I looked back at my scorecards from the recent debates. These are debates among Republicans for Republicans. Yet is stunning how negative the reaction has been from Republicans, both the candidates and some leading commentators.
Rush Limbaugh, the undisputed king of conservative talk radio exclaimed after the last Fox debate: “When I started watching, I said, ‘My gosh! Does nobody on this panel remember that we’re running against Obama? What is this business with these guys trying to tear each other up?’
He continued: “And then I figured out that that’s what Fox wants. Fox wants these people to tear each other up. And I said, ‘Why does Fox want these people to tear each other?’ Because they want approval from the mainstream media, because that’s what the mainstream media would do. They’d tear these people up or try to get them to.”
Even the candidates took to attacking the moderators. The whole spectacle called to mind those parents who yell at the referees for their children’s soccer games when they don’t like the calls they make.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich singled out Chris Wallace during the debate saying: “Well, let me say first of all, Chris, that I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points. And I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions … I’d love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games.”
After the Fox debate in Ames, Iowa last month, the panel of Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Byron York and Susan Ferrechio were criticized by several conservatives for asking tough questions of the candidates.
Of all the GOP candidates, Gingrich has probably been the most forceful in running against the media. During his three decades in public life, Gingrich has fine-tuned the notion of criticizing the media into an effective political tactic for Republicans.
During the NBC/Politico Debate at the Reagan Library in California, Gingrich snapped at moderator John Harris, “Well, I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”
He added “I, for one, and I hope all of my friends up here, going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama who deserves to be defeated.”
So, is Gingrich’s recipe for a great GOP debate to simply provide a platform for high decibel bashing of President Obama?
Hard-liners can get that on most right-wing radio any day of the week.
A good Republican debate should make the case that Republicans have better ideas and stronger principles than the incumbent and deserve the nation’s attention. And it should offer a chance for people on the Republican side of the aisle to assess the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of each of the candidates as they try to find the best candidate to run against the incumbent.
In contrast to Gingrich, Sarah Palin gets the real power and potential of these GOP debates. The purveyor of the phrase -- “lame-stream media” – expressed conservatives’ pleasure at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Florida.
“The hook-up with a major news network, CNN and more power to CNN for allowing that validation of this grassroots Tea Party movement participants from all over the nation being able as a voice of ‘we the people’ asking questions of these potential presidents. Very, very wonderful debate…” Palin opined.
“The winner in this really I believe was the tea party movement and validation of what it is that we’ve been talking about for two years now” she added.
Palin is right on the money with her commentary.
To the average Republican voter, the mainstream media – specifically the broadcast networks and the major metropolitan newspapers – suffer from a pervasive liberal biased that makes them untrustworthy. These debates have served to validate the Tea Party and demonstrate their overwhelming influence in the GOP nomination process.
Every year, Gallup conducts a poll of American attitudes toward the media. Last year, 67% of Republicans said they have little or no trust in the media where as only 32% said they had a great or fair amount of trust in the media. This compares to 57% of all Americans, regardless of party identification, who said they distrust the media and 43% who say they trust the media. Both percentages are records in the history of the poll. One wonders how the spectacle of the GOP debates will impact this year’s numbers.
The debates so far have also served to illustrate a larger point about the 2012 election. What is popular with the Tea Party faction of the GOP is not necessarily popular with the broader American electorate.
When NBC’s Brian Williams posed a question to Rick Perry in his first debate performance about the 234 executions he has overseen as Governor of Texas, the room erupted with applause before Perry had a chance to answer.
Similarly, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked this hypothetical question of Texas Congressman Ron Paul: “What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn't have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? "Are you saying society should just let him die?"
Before Paul gave his answer, members of the audience shouted “Yeah!” indicating that they would let the man die.
While this audience reaction may make sense to the libertarians and Tea Partiers, most people regard it as astonishing if not abhorrent.
There have already been five Republican debates and at least ten more are scheduled before the final nominee is chosen.
When they take the stage tomorrow night, the candidates should remember that their answers will reverberate beyond the auditorium walls and in to the general election – if they should make it that far.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which was released in July.