Michele Bachmann Versus CBS News: "She's Nearly Off the Charts."

There have been numerous complaints from second-tier candidates about the unfair allocation of debate time.  Not unreasonably, these candidates make the point that they don’t have a fair chance of reaching the top tier if debate moderators only give them a couple of minutes to speak, while the heavyweight contenders gobble up most of the debate time.  When Rick Perry entered the race, everyone else had to chew their lower lips and watch the moderators spend half the evening trying to goad Perry and Mitt Romney into a wrestling match. 

After last Saturday’s foreign policy debate in South Carolina, Michele Bachmann’s campaign came into possession of the ultimate media-bias smoking gun: a memo from CBS news, meant for internal consumption, that plainly and unambiguously states the network never intended to give Bachmann much time to speak.  The memo, sent by CBS News political analyst John Dickerson, dismisses the notion of spending air time on interviews with Bachmann or her campaign staff, since “she’s not going to get many questions, and she’s nearly off the charts.”

Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s campaign manager, made a statement denouncing the efforts by “media elites” to manipulate the campaign:

“The liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message and limiting Michele’s questions.  We need to show the liberal media elite that we won’t stand for this outrageous manipulation.  Help us fight this affront by sharing this with your friends.”

That was actually Nahigian’s second statement on the subject.  His initial statement, delivered in the media “spin room” after the debate, was: “John Dickerson should be fired.  He is a piece of s**t.  He is a fraud and he should be fired.”

CBS doesn’t seem inclined to fire anyone, responding in a statement that Dickerson’s memo was “a candid exchange about the reality of the circumstances” because “Bachmann remains at 4% in the polls.”

Ron Paul’s campaign is also unhappy that their man was “only allocated 90 seconds of speaking in one televised hour,” describing the situation as “disgraceful.”  The most recent CBS News poll had Paul at 5%, so presumably CBS would give him the same answer they gave Bachmann.  (The same poll, incidentally, put Herman Cain in the lead at 18%, with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tied at 15%.  No one else made it into double digits.)

The debates have been exceptionally important during this primary cycle.  Cain, Gingrich, and Rick Santorum based their campaign strategy almost entirely on achieving superior debate performances, and it has worked amazingly well for Cain and Gingrich.  (Santorum hasn’t realized the same level of success, but he deserves credit for making a spirited attempt, and performing beyond the expectations of many political analysts.)

Rick Perry, on the other hand, came into the campaign with excellent funding and a terrific record as Texas governor, only to slide to the edge of oblivion because of debate incidents that ranged from alienating voters who disagree with his state’s illegal-alien tuition policy by calling them “heartless” to the epic brain-freezing disaster of the Third Department of Doom.  Perry is well aware that his campaign has been dying on the debate stage, and is making a real effort to step up his game, receiving high marks for his performance last Saturday.

Why the big emphasis on debates this time?  It could be driven by lingering antipathy among many primary voters to Mitt Romney.  His support in the polls has always been solid but unchanging, suggesting that 70% or more of the GOP electorate seeks an alternative to Romney, and the debates have been their political Home Shopping Network.  If Romney had broader appeal and was able to build up a more prohibitive lead, the primary field might have already winnowed further, and the debates wouldn’t be thrilling high-wire performances by the latest Not-Romney.

We may also be seeing the effect of Tea Party infusion on the Republican primary process.  Tea Party folks seriously dislike the idea of handing the nomination to the Next Guy In Line, a GOP tradition that gave us John McCain last time around.  The desire to entertain and evaluate unconventional candidates has thrown some banana peels beneath the feet of the normally stately Republican primary procession.

Fragmentation of the news media also gives the debates greater importance.  The old model of a few networks and big newspapers disseminating the bulk of our political intelligence grows increasingly small in the post-Rathergate rear-view mirror.  The debates have become rare moments of unified interest when everyone is digesting the same information stream. 

This leaves debate moderators in a quandary, because it’s very difficult to split limited stage time between eight candidates, especially when voters are clamoring for substantive answers instead of rapid-fire sound bite bursts.  Also, debate rules that grant candidates response time after they have been mentioned directly will naturally drain attention from those who are rarely named by their competitors.  That wasn’t a big factor in the CBS debate last Saturday, but it wasn’t long ago that we watched Herman Cain speak for what seemed like half the debate, because the other candidates kept challenging him by name. 

The hour draws near for some of the single-digit candidates to pack it in… but it should not be up to the media to decide when that hour is at hand.  Bachmann and Paul’s campaigns are right to complain that debate moderators shouldn’t be declaring them irrelevant, and then turning their judgment into a self-fulfilling prophecy by ignoring them to death. 

Personally, I think the 5%-and-under candidates have reached the point where they’re eating up debate time without any realistic path to the nomination… but if they showed up for a debate I was moderating, I wouldn’t give them the CBS News “nearly off the charts” treatment.  Moderators are not supposed to euthanize ailing campaigns.  That decision should always lie with the voters.  If a particular candidate endures week after week of miniscule poll standings, but still has the resources and desire to keep a campaign going, he or she should be treated with the same respect afforded the front-runners.  How else will they have a fair shot at becoming this week’s Not-Romney?