The fierce Republican backlash to the tone and tenor of questions to the 2016 GOP hopefuls on Wednesday night leaves the party no choice but to remove liberals from its debates and demand better work by the chairman to give conservative principles a chance to be expressed.
That’s the reaction from Richard Viguerie, chairman of conservativehq.com and a decades-long fixture in the conservative movement, in reaction to Wednesday’s explosive debate on CNBC. Conservatives, moderates and plenty of non-Republicans all excoriated panelists John Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick for repeatedly asking insulting questions that were seen as an attempt to antagonize the candidates.
Donald Trump was asked if he was running a “comic book” version of a campaign and was told he had as much chance of flapping his arms and flying as he did at balancing the budget. Marco Rubio was asked why he cashed in a small retirement account. Mike Huckabee was given the chance to denounce Trump as a bad choice to be the moral leader of the party (he declined). The panelists also repeatedly interrupted the candidates and even seemed to debate them at times.
Viguerie was appalled.
“It was just outrageous. It may be the most biased panel ever assembled for a presidential debate. Republicans are used to having biased liberal panelists for these debates, but this was over the top and this was in a class by itself,” said Viguerie.
He points the fingers of blame in two directions, first at NBC News.
“NBC should be shamed. NBC is owned by General Electric. The president is Jeff Immelt, a very active liberal Democrat. It just stinks of the hands of the Democrats,” said Viguerie. “This is a suicide for the Republicans to continue to go into the den of the enemy and turn the messaging of the Republican Party over to our sworn enemies, which is mainstream media.”
But Viguerie does not put all the blame on NBC. He says Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gave the green light to that format and those panelists.
“Reince Priebus has put the job of identifying the issues that should be talked about in this campaign in the hands of liberal Democrats. I mean it’s just outrageous,” said Viguerie.
He says it’s time for grassroots conservatives to demand better of Priebus or send him packing, as they just did to another prominent Republican.
“The grassroots just needs to take the same action regarding Reince Priebus’ ineptness and incompetence that they did with (former House Speaker) John Boehner. It was the grassroots that forced John Boehner out of office and I think the grassroots’ voice needs to be heard loud and clear in the coming days to force Reince Priebus to change the format of the debates,” said Viguerie.
Viguerie also hated the venue.
“He close one of the most liberal college campuses in America, Boulder, Colorado. There’s so many wonderful conservative colleges: Colorado Christian College, Hillsdale College, Grove City, many, many conservative colleges that would have been a nice backdrop,” said Viguerie.
While the left-leaning questions came early and often, the debate took on a new dimension when Sen. Ted Cruz unloaded on the panelists.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. You look at the questions. Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” said Cruz, to thunderous applause.
Viguerie was among those cheering.
“I hollered out when he said that, ‘Grand slam home run!’ It was just outstanding. I thought Rubio’s comments regarding the panel was a home run. Cruz’s was a grand slam home run,” said Viguerie. “I think you’re going to see Rubio and Cruz significantly move up in the polls in the coming days.”
But now that the debates are underway, how much can Priebus and the Republican Party do to alter the format of upcoming events. Viguerie believes there plenty of changes that can be made.
“It has to be a partnership with the networks and you have to pass judgment on the panelists. That’s part of the game. If not, then hold them on Fox and Let’s Fox’s numbers go up,” he said, noting that Democrats in 2008 and again this cycle refuse to allow any debates on the Fox News Channel.
While Viguerie says it’s crucial to fix the debates now so Americans can hear a clear exchange of conservative ideas, he considers it imperative to have changes in place for the biggest debates of all.
“Certainly, as we look at the fall of 2016 general election. If they have people again like Candy Crowley asking questions, Republicans will be telling you they’re into the suicide business,” said Viguerie.
Crowley, then with CNN, famously interrupted 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney to claim President Obama had described the attacks in Benghazi as acts of terrorism from the very beginning. Later, with tens of millions fewer viewers, Crowley admitted she had been wrong.
Viguerie is ultimately hopeful that the CNBC debate will serve as a wake-up call for the mainstream media, not out of a sense of fairness but for self-preservation.
“At some point here the media are going to have to clean up their act because they are a dinosaur. They are a dying dinosaur. Events like last night do nothing but damage the mainstream media’s reputation and it drives more and more people away from them,” said Viguerie.