The RNC believes that both projects will essentially be endorsements of Clinton, a possible (likely? probable? almost certain?) Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential election, and that therefore NBC and CNN will not be able to fairly host Republican presidential debates. It is worth pointing out that at least in the case of NBC’s planned miniseries, the entertainment division of the network would be responsible for the project, and the news division would be in charge of any debates. Will viewers appreciate the difference? Maybe not.
Still, the RNC’s move is more than a little ironic for a number of reasons.
I would like to remind the readers that it is typically those on the right side of the political aisle who oppose campaign finance restrictions. Many conservatives and Republicans celebrated the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in which the Court held that corporations can spend unlimited sums to support or oppose federal candidates. One of the rationales behind the Court’s decision was that more speech (in this case spending) is always better. The idea is that it is for the public, not the government, to decide how much weight (if any) to give campaign speech.
In Citizens United the Court further found that even though the law at issue – the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain Feingold) – explicitly did not limit spending by the media, there would be little way to defend this media exemption if the Court were to uphold the restriction on spending by other corporations. This reasoning strikes me as incorrect for a number of reasons, but it is interesting to note that it was largely Republicans who argued that the Court would be putting the freedom of the press at issue if it were to uphold restrictions that by their terms did not apply to the press. It is now the RNC that is seeking to curtail the media, either by preventing the production of films about Clinton, or by preventing two major networks from airing debates between Republican presidential candidates.
Now of course the RNC is not the government, and if the RNC wants to prevent NBC and CNN from hosting debates that is not nearly the same as Congress passing a law to prohibit those networks from airing debates. However, if it is true that more speech is always better for the public, particularly for the electorate, then this is a curious position to take. It is, after all, true that many Republicans favor a system of unlimited spending on campaign advertisements, and do not necessarily favor disclosure of those behind the spending. In this case the public already knows who is behind these films, NBC and CNN respectively. If both films truly are the equivalent of campaign advertisements, something that absolutely remains to be seen, then let’s trust the public to realize that for themselves and give Republican candidates as many opportunities as they want to respond.
So what is this move by the RNC really about? The most likely explanation is that Republicans think a protracted “debate season” will harm their chances in the general election. It is no secret that the RNC wants fewer primary debates in the next election. Certainly the intraparty fighting did not appear to help Republicans much in the 2012 elections. However, a decrease in the number of debates deprives the voters of the opportunity to hear from candidates in a variety of formats. If the Republican candidates believe that NBC and CNN are trying to stack the deck in favor of a Clinton candidacy then those candidates should say so, particularly on NBC and CNN.
Lest readers think this is about my support of Clinton and/or opposition to Republican candidates, let me say that I would feel the same way if Fox decided to air a film about Governor Chris Christie and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted to prevent Fox News from hosting Democratic presidential debates. This should not be about politics, although of course it always is, this should be about allowing entertainment companies to air anything they want without fear that their “sister” news networks will suffer retribution. This should be about giving the voters a chance to hear from the candidates in a variety of debate formats, not just in stump speeches and other campaign events. It is long past time for the public to hear an actual dialogue between those vying to represent them.
Levinson is an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she teaches classes about election law and the Supreme Court.