Tuesday, May 31 , 2016, 9:53 pm | Overcast 57º

Mark Shields: Republican Party’s 2016 Problems Rooted in Its 2012 Debates

By Mark Shields |

The Republican National Committee, at its August meeting in Boston, unanimously endorsed party chairman Reince Priebus' position to bar CNN and NBC — if those two networks proceed with plans to air a planned documentary and miniseries about potential 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — from hosting any 2016 Republican presidential debates. For Priebus, this could turn out to be a hollow "victory" against the wrong foes.

First, celluloid bios are not an unmixed blessing to presidential candidates. Just 30 years ago this September, Democratic presidential candidates not named John Glenn were dreading the big-screen release of Tom Wolfe's bestseller The Right Stuff, the fascinating saga of Air Force test pilots and of the Mercury Seven astronauts, of whom Glenn would become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Glenn look-alike Ed Harris portrayed the Marine pilot, and influential critic Roger Ebert called The Right Stuff the year's best film. But voters were just reminded of why they had so admired Glenn after his 1962 space flight, and not why he ought to be president in 1984.

CNN's Clinton documentary will be the work of Charles Ferguson, whose Inside Job — a scorching indictment of Wall Street in the financial crisis — won an Oscar and who is not expected to produce an uncritical valentine to the former first lady. The NBC miniseries is just a bad idea, and the smoldering Diane Lane of Unfaithful is hard to imagine as Sen./Secretary Clinton.

But the problem the GOP had in 2012 came from the debates hosted by the party's "known friendlies," such as the Tea Party and Fox News, along with state Republican organizations. Take the Sept. 22, 2011, Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Fox News and Google, when an Army captain stationed in Iraq, Stephen Hill, stated via video that, in order to deploy to a combat zone, he had "to lie about who I was because I'm a gay soldier." He asked the candidates, "Do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?"

Hill and his question were booed and jeered by partisans in the audience. None of the White House hopefuls criticized the booing or thought to thank this U.S. soldier in Iraq for his service.

Ten days earlier at the Tampa, Fla., debate co-hosted by the Tea Party, Rep. Ron Paul was asked what the conservative policy response should be to a healthy 30-year-old who refuses to get health insurance, suffers a stroke, goes into a coma and needs six months of hospital care. "Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Even before Paul could answer no, he would not let him die, there were shouts of "yeah," followed by clearly audible derisive hoots toward Paul from the partisan audience.

A week earlier at the Reagan Presidential Library, Brian Williams of NBC asked this of the new frontrunner: "Gov. (Rick) Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any governor in modern times ... ." Mention of 234 Texas executions leads to sustained applause from the Republican audience, interrupting the question.

It wasn't the networks that created the impression of Republicans as mean-spirited — just ugly outbursts from debate audiences to whom the candidates were pandering. The unmistakable impression left to the 99 percent plus watching on TV was of a party of intolerance and cruelty, and of a leadership unable to stand up to bullies in the hall.

That's the real 2016 challenge for Priebus — to stage interesting, intelligent presidential debates and not noisy, audience-participation reality shows.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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