Tonight’s Republican Primary Debate was the best run debate we’ve had so far. The structure was better and Wolf Blitzer managed the back and forth between the candidates more effectively than past moderators have done. This made it more of a real debate, but my enjoyment was tainted by a nagging awareness that the eight candidates standing on the stage did not really represent the diversity of the Republican Party. I had to ask myself why the Republican Party of Florida and Tea Party Express allowed CNN to pick some candidates and exclude others based on arbitrary criteria which seem to serve their interests and not those of Republicans or the nation.
This was not a debate between candidates who represent Republican voters, but rather a debate between candidates hand picked by the media to play out their fictional version of what a Republican primary campaign should be like and what kind of candidates represent the factions within the Republcian Party. Weak Republican leaders have allowed the media to effectively take control of this election and pick which candidates we are allowed to see and ultimately who we can vote for.
At the heart of this problem is the systematic exclusion of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson from every debate since the first one in South Carolina. Governor Johnson is as well qualified as anyone on the debate stage. He has an exemplary record as a two term governor in a swing state. He is the only governor in the race who still has the support of a majority of his home state voters. He comes from a business background and built a multi-million dollar company from nothing. He has one of the best defined issue agendas of any candidate. He has an active campaign with state organizations nationwide and a prominent presence in New Hampshire where he’s currently focusing his efforts.
Johnson has everything it should take to be a leading candidate, but for some reason the media seems to have singled him out for exclusion. Are they ignoring Johnson for not fitting their definition of a Republican because he’s not pro-war, pro-bailout and religiously conservative? Do they think having two libertarian-leaning candidates legitimizes that movement too much and might get either Johnson or Ron Paul elected? Are they afraid that as a candidate who strongly appeals to independents and crossover voters he’s too dangerous to Obama?
No one really understands their motivation, but their shunning of Johnson is blatantly transparent and became offensively obvious with this latest debate. Prior to this debate the trick for excluding Johnson was that he wasn’t scoring high enough in enough polls to qualify, a result which was accomplished by just not including his name in most of the polls and then claiming that even though he met the criteria in the polls he was in, he didn’t do well enough in the polls from which he was excluded. I know it sounds crazy, but this really was the argument made by NBC and Fox in the two previous debates.
In tonight’s debate CNN added a new twist. Up until two weeks ago they had been including Johnson in their polls, and while he wasn’t in the top tier, he was scoring a respectable 2 or 3 percent consistently. In their last poll before the debate Johnson scored higher than Rick Santorum and John Huntsman and tied Herman Cain. Yet despite this, CNN invited those three candidates to participate and did not invite Johnson to the debate. They could not be swayed by emails, letters or phonecalls from Johnson’s supporters. Then, as the jesters cap on this political farce, they dropped him fromt the list of candidates in the poll they took right before the debate, and in the results for that poll they removed him from the comparison listing from previous polls and replaced him with “someone else.”
Frankly, I cannot imagine a more deliberate or more obvious attempt to manipulate the primary process and effectively terminate a candidacy through the power of the media. As a Republican I find the idea that the media should exercise this sort of power over a primary which determines the future of the party and of the nation to be terrifying. Treat a candidate like he doesn’t exist and chances are that he will go away. It was troubling enough when the Democrats did it to George McGovern, but to have a media which isn’t even sympathetic to the interests of the GOP doing it is scandalous.
But where is the outrage? Why is RNC Chairman Reince Priebus not descending on Atlanta with an army of lawyers? There seems to be a passive approval of CNN’s meddling in the election from the party establishment, because they fear the challenge to their corrupt and ineffective leadership that Johnson represents. As a governor Johnson proved that he could govern without relying on special interests and corrupt bargains, and they know that the days of party insiders brokering elections and fattening their wallets at the expense of the people and in disregard to the grassroots would be numbered if Johnson was elected.
It’s likely that Johnson’s crime is that he is too good a candidate with ideas which are too likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters and the forces of the status quo in the media and in the party would just as soon not have him challenging their supremacy. They can tolerate Ron Paul because he has no history of accomplishment and can be dismissed as a bit squirrely and academic – he may stir up the rabble but he probably can’t win the election and if he did he’s such an ideologue he’d be unable to get anything done. What they can’t tolerate is is the threat of a younger, more dynamic and less easily marginalized pro-liberty reformer like Johnson. Johnson has a record of successful reform, has no skeletons in his closet and has practical solutions and the ability to be pragmatic enough to get them passed.
Johnson is the real thing, and like Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater before him, the elites of the media and the party have aligned against him. He’s too dangerous to be given a fair chance in a debate, and we’ve seen a corresponding dearth of coverage in the media when compared to lower polling candidates like Huntsman and Santorum. He is a threat to the status quo cannot be tolerated by the establishment or their media allies.
The debates are grand theatre and the people love their bread and circuses, but as Republicans and as voters we should to be outraged and we ought to demand better from CNN and from our party leaders.
A previous version of this article appeared on Blogcritics Magazine