Mystery d(eb)ate: The case against Hillary TV

I don’t have many fond memories of the 1988 presidential campaign. Other than a great election-night episode of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (complete with guest star Don Cornelius!), the year of Willie Horton ads and Mike Dukakis in a Tank is something I’d just as soon forget.

click to enlarge Priebus shows how big Jeff Zucker's "bias" is.
Priebus shows how big Jeff Zucker's "bias" is.

Oh, but there was one other highlight: That profoundly cathartic debate sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which Dana Carvey’s Bush 41, unable to say anything useful or even coherent, “answered” a question mostly by arguing with moderator Diane Sawyer (Jan Hooks) that he must have used up his two minutes already. (The response from Jon Lovitz’ Dukakis: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”) Years later, the real George W. Bush went a step further: In an actual televised presidential debate, he pleaded with the moderator to call time on his own floundering answer. It was true case of underachievement imitating art.

Debates haven’t been the GOP’s friend for quite some time, and they know it. That’s why even the most obedient stenographers in the Pee-Stream Media called shenanigans this week, when RNC chair Reince Priebus announced that he would not allow NBC or CNN to host any of his party’s 2016 primary debates unless they abandoned their plans to air high-profile primetime films about Hillary Clinton.

click to enlarge Diane Lane, NBC's "Hillary": It takes an iVillage.
Diane Lane, NBC's "Hillary": It takes an iVillage.

Priebus shows how big Jeff Zucker's "bias" is.

Let’s call this the Br’er Patch strategy, since it boils down to “Please don’t make me pull out of doing that thing I desperately didn’t want to do in the first place.” After all, the GOP’s 2012 postmortem placed a heavy amount of blame on the number of debates they had put themselves through even before the general election got underway. The official explanation was that the party’s candidates had been forced to spend too much time beating up on each other instead of taking on the President, but the true message was even simpler: The More Debates We Have, The More People Can See How Cray-Cray We Are. When you’re trying to grab the undecided voter, having seven or eight candidates try to outdo each other in pandering to an audience that wants to pull the plug on gay servicemen without health insurance should not be your Plan A.

Priebus essentially admitted the ruse today on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, revealing that his real goal was to avoid having his candidates questioned by moderators who are “not actually interested in the future of the Republican Party and our nominees.” Presumably, this means that CBS, ABC and Univision are also out of the question as primary debate hosts, though none of them has announced plans for its own Hillary pic. But forget the moderators for a minute – by 2016, will Priebus able to find any Americans who are interested in the future of the Republican Party and its nominees?

It’s also worth noting that TV films about Ms. Clinton haven’t traditionally been conservatives’ bête noir. After all, the 2008 smear job Hillary: The Movie had struck them as such fine programming that they went all the way to the Supreme Court to get it aired; as a result, we got the Citizens United decision. You’re welcome, Reince.

So Priebus is just working the refs. But does he have a point anyway? Are the NBC and CNN programs – the latter a documentary, the former a miniseries dramatization – just free advertising for Hillary the presidential candidate? No less than Media MattersDavid Brock thinks so.  Like Priebus, he’s sent letters to both networks imploring them to scotch their plans. Since the shows "could coincide with a potential Clinton presidential campaign,” he writes, “the timing raises too many questions about fairness and conflicts of interest ahead of the 2016 election."

Diane Lane, NBC's "Hillary": It takes an iVillage.

And that’s a fair cop. Let’s just keep in mind that the two men have far different goals. Priebus, as we’ve seen, is looking for any excuse to confine his candidates’ batshit talk to FOX. (Hence the ridiculously unrealistic urgency of his demand that NBC and CNN comply by next week.) Brock, the conservative hit man turned repentant liberal watchdog, ostensibly just wants to keep the political process above board. But there’s another angle to consider. Note that his letters only express concern over the Hillary pics being unfair to “other potential candidates.” He doesn’t say “other potential GOP candidates.” What a lot of people are forgetting is that Hillary isn’t the nominee yet – merely the presumptive one. Turning her into Must-See TV doesn’t just feed the notion of media bias against the GOP; it also helps quash any Democrat who might have the temerity to run against her.

I’m not surprised so few pundits are raising this red flag. Most of them have long since anointed Hillary as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2016 – and for now at least, they have the polls to back it up. But treating any candidate as inevitable three years in advance of an election is simply anathema to the democratic process as I recognize it. My ears pricked up when Howard Dean announced a few weeks ago that he was considering another run: As a progressive, I’d be 10 times quicker and more excited to vote for him than for Hillary. (Joe Biden, 5 times.) But the same media/DNC axis that stomped out Dean’s candidacy in 2004 (and helped kill John Edwards’ in 2008) has all but ignored his latest announcement.

It’s Hillary or nobody this time, say the smart people – and if we acquiesce, we’re basically giving up on seeing the Democratic Party ever return to its pre-Clinton-era commitments and values. It’s bad enough that we customarily have to make that deal with the devil by the end of primary season; I’ll be damned if I‘m going to do it three years earlier.

And it isn’t all that good for Hillary either. Last time, the idea that she “deserved” the nomination hurt her badly, and deservedly so. Hence her current strategy of using public surrogates to “convince” her into running. So while the content of the NBC and CNN programs might be wholly above board and beneficial to her cause, the mere fact of them existing would be bad for just about everybody -- her included.

The good news is that it isn’t too late for her to put a stop to them. Maybe Chelsea knows somebody she can talk to at NBC.


Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 52.

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