Can Republicans and NBC Play Nicely?

The RNC has threatened to withdraw from the next NBC debate, as anger over the CNBC debate continues. Expect calmer heads, and words, to prevail.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

Widespread anger over CNBC’s much-criticized handling of the Republican presidential debate boiled over on Friday—two days after Wednesday’s food fight in Boulder, Colorado—as the various GOP campaigns raged at the Comcast-owned business channel and complained to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who negotiated the media partnerships and set the terms for the 10-debate primary schedule.

As the campaigns prepared to meet this weekend to discuss the formats of future primary debates—and pointedly excluded RNC representatives from their meeting—a frazzled Priebus reacted to the rising rage among his flock by threatening to punish NBC News and cancel a planned February 26 debate in Houston that was scheduled be hosted by the broadcast network, CNBC’s corporate sibling.

“It’s a little bit of CYA because the candidates are pissed,” former RNC chairman Michael Steele told The Daily Beast, using the acronym for “cover your ass.”

“The RNC is reacting to its constituents, and the biggest constituents right now are the 14 individuals running for president of the United States. They are not happy. So someone’s got to take a bullet in the head for this. And it’s not going to be Reince.”

Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, told The Daily Beast that outrage over the CNBC debate could be catalyst for changes in the way Priebus has been orchestrating the primary debate schedule—which was designed to be more limited and less divisive than the 20-debate vituperative marathon of the 2012 campaign season.

“There’s frustration that there has been micromanaging of the process going on that kind of takes the political market out of play,” Graham said, referring Priebus’s decision to employ the “absurd use of national polling” where close results within the margin of error decide which candidates get to be on the main stage, and which are relegated to second-class status in an undercard debate.

“I think the structural problems showed up the most in this CNBC debate,” said Graham, who proposes that the Republicans hold two equal debates, perhaps an hour apart, allowing for fewer candidates onstage and more free-wheeling discussion.

“The CNBC debate had problems unique to that particular debate—there were too many people in the top-tier debate, too many moderators trying to have a gotcha moment, and it fell apart—but the structural problems have always been there.”

Referring to Priebus, Graham said: “I don’t have a problem with him as a person. I like him. He’s tried hard to rebuild our party. But here’s the dilemma—they’re trying to avoid a 2012. They tried to limit the number of debates, but they had a bigger-than-expected field. So what they did—in trying to react to the problems of 2012—has created new problems for 2016.”

Meanwhile, Priebus’s open letter to NBC News Chairman Andy Lack—in which the RNC chief declared, “We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns”—isn’t the only fallout from the Rocky Mountain fiasco, which has turned increasingly radioactive in the hours since Priebus called CNBC’s political “Gong Show” a “crap sandwich.”

NBC News partisans are also venting rage internally at the business channel—which operates independently from the network news division and its cable outlet, MSNBC—for undermining NBC News’s claim to fairness and credibility as Republicans joust for the nomination.

“The NBC News folks are beyond angry, to put it politely,” said an NBC insider. “It’s bad enough that the network and the cable station get slammed for their ‘Lean Forward’ liberal bias, but there has been very honest and concerted effort to reframe MSNBC as a news network where conservatives and liberals alike can come and get undoctored, unadulterated, clean news.”

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Indeed, the general perception of MSNBC’s left-leaning orientation—and hostility to conservatives—prompted Priebus to announce in January that the cable outlet would not be hosting any 2016 primary debates.

But in recent months, Lack—a former NBC News president who rejoined the company in April—has been working hard to rebrand MSNBC as a down-the-middle channel by methodically purging the daytime schedule of explicitly ideological opinion programming in favor of hard news, while turning the cable operation into an arm of the network news division.

The CNBC debate, in which the principal moderators—Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood—asked questions deemed hostile and insulting to the candidates and seemed to lose control of the proceedings, arguably undercut Lack’s labors.

“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” Priebus wrote in his letter to Lack.

“We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.”

An NBC News spokesperson responded to Priebus’s letter by suggesting that the impasse can be fixed and noting that another sponsor of the debate is Telemundo, whose Latino viewers represent a group of voters that the Republican Party desperately needs to win the White House next year.

“This is a disappointing development,” said the NBC News statement. “However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”

Steele, for one, predicted that the NBC News-sponsored debate will ultimately be saved—and Priebus’s letter to Andy Lack was a step toward that goal.

“I think calmer heads will prevail after a short period of time,” he said. “We’re two days out from what was an absolutely crappy debate, so everybody is jacked up.

“They’re anxious. You’ve got a debate coming online in two weeks [the November 10 Fox Business Network debate in Milwaukee] and you’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

Steele continued: “The whole idea now is to get everything to a place of calm, and one quick way to do that is to fire off a letter saying ‘You’re fired!’—parentheses ‘we think.’ And then we’ll come back and revisit this a little bit later when the seas are calmer and the voices are lowered. That’s what Reince, to his credit, is trying to get done.”