It’s increasingly clear that Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to avoid being on a normal debate stage with Hillary Clinton — and the chairman of the Republican National Committee will do anything he can to help prevent that disaster from ever happening.
Reince Priebus appeared on the CBS Sunday show Face the Nation yesterday and moderator John Dickerson asked him whether he agreed with Trump that the presidential debate schedule is unfair or somehow “rigged” in favor of Clinton.
While Priebus would not endorse a silly conspiracy theory, he did indicate that he would back the reality show star in his efforts to change current debate plans, pledging to “work with” the Commission on Presidential Debates.
“Certainly we’re not going to agree with anything that our nominee doesn’t agree with,” Priebus said.
Trump began trying to weasel out of the debates this weekend by claiming that the National Football League wanted them rescheduled, an excuse which the NFL quickly denied.
Priebus aired this same concern that the networks should “maximize the audience” — and tried to blame the CPD for not communicating with the RNC.
“[I]t would be incumbent upon them to communicate with us and others about what they have in mind,” he told Dickerson, “but we’re not going to be having debates on Sunday and Monday night, I don’t believe.”
Apparently unaware that the NFL has Thursday night games, too, Priebus opined that it might be a better time for audience share. Tuesday and Wednesday, the other two nights of the week he considers acceptable, risk having the debates compete with World Series baseball during October.
In short, his proposed changes would not improve audience share at all.
To his credit, Dickerson then asked a good question. Since the CPD scheduled these debates over a year ago, “why are we just now hearing about this?”
“Well, they don’t communicate to us,” Priebus sniffed. “No one at the Commission’s called me.”
Nor would they, because the CPD is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that exists to do exactly one job, and that is to schedule debates for the best possible times.
The Commission’s decisions are not kept secret, either, but made almost a year in advance and then published for the whole world to see.
“The [CPD] started working more than 18 months ago to identify religious and federal holidays, baseball league playoff games, NFL games, and other events in order to select the best nights for the 2016 debates,” the group said. “It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles. A debate has never been rescheduled as a result.”
The two major parties co-founded the CPD in 1987 to keep partisan bickering and candidate pressures from unduly influencing a crucial rite of American democracy.
As you might expect, there have been proposals that the DNC and RNC should take over the debate system from the CPD, and Priebus mentioned transparency criticism of the CPD to strengthen the false impression that he’s somehow supposed to get a say in the debate schedule.
But in fact Donald Trump is simply trying to weasel out of one-on-one debates in a traditional format. Having mulitple opponents worked to his advantage in the GOP primaries, allowing Trump to perform dominance rituals like a professional wrestler.
Priebus and Trump say they want as many people as possible to watch the debates, but the real goal here is to create uncertainty that they will take place at all, hopefully forcing changes that help Trump seem to be the one in charge of the event.
Characterologically, Trump needs tension and drama. Fresh out of the conventions, he now needs to create a drama out of the debates. Like a bad seed kid, he can’t help picking fights. He needs tension both to satisfy inner needs and to deal with other people. But even if he eventually agrees to participate in one or more of the debates, he will try mightily to force some change or break some dishes in order to assert dominance over the process. He’ll insist someone needs to be included, some part of the format has to change, some location isn’t sufficient. The substance will always be secondary to the need to impose his will.
The last thing Reince Priebus wants to see is his party’s standard-bearer being forced to match Hillary Clinton on policy, point for point, by a respected moderator. He’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that horrible fate.
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