Republicans should not dodge tough questions

Sure, there’s a lot of lousy coverage of political candidates out there, and you can find a lot of hagiographic coverage of Democratic figures and unfairly critical coverage of Republican figures. But press-bashing has now become a reflex among certain Republican officeholders, and it’s starting to become a crutch, an easy way to swat away legitimate questions. The widespread contempt for reporters and the process of covering campaigns raises some questions about just what Republicans think is fair coverage, and whether they would prefer to sit back and watch a primary that consisted entirely of speeches and scripted applause lines, with no questions or off-the-cuff answers.

Last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis completed an overseas trade tour of Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the United Kingdom that was totally focused on increasing Florida’s exports to those countries, and purely coincidentally provided him some B-roll footage for future presidential-campaign commercials touting his relevant foreign-policy experience.

During a press conference in Israel, DeSantis had this exchange:

REPORTER: Would you like to comment on a report on NBC News that you are going to run, announce running next month?

DESANTIS: Was that sourced to anonymous sources? Let me guess, surprise, surprise. It would be nice to just do one article where you’re naming the people, instead of just doing the gossip.

We get it, Republican presidential candidates. You hate most or all of the mainstream media and think they ask stupid questions. The perceived high point of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 bid was when he slammed debate moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN. Much of former president Donald Trump’s whole antagonistic, blustering, combative persona was built around “much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people.” And as governor, DeSantis has had plenty of feisty interactions with both the state and national press.

And at the risk of picking on that reporter in Israel, it’s obvious DeSantis was not going to just blurt out, in the middle of a foreign trip, “Oh, yes, I’m going to formally announce my bid on May 22nd. You should get up early that day.”

But DeSantis is running second in the polls; he wrote a book about how what he’s done in Florida is a blueprint for the rest of the country; and Never Back Down, an independent Super PAC, is already running ads on his behalf and organizing support for him in key states. Everybody and their brother knows that DeSantis is either going to run for president, or he’s going to shock and disappoint a lot of people by choosing to not run at the last minute. When everybody knows you’re going to run for president, you’re going to get questions about when you’re going to formally announce your campaign! Those kinds of questions will stop when the prospective candidate makes it official. Then the reporters can move on to asking when the candidate will drop out of the race. (I kid, I kid.)

Can you run an effective campaign by only talking to a handful of preferred outlets? A few days ago, Politico laid out DeSantis’s close relationship with the Florida Standard, “an online conservative news outlet that instantly gained unprecedented access to DeSantis when it launched last summer”:

DeSantis has agreed to only a few interviews in the past year, usually with Fox News or established right-wing outlets. He’s made a show of turning down requests from places like “The View.” But the week the Florida Standard went live in August, Witt rolled out a 22-minute sit-down with DeSantis, a coincidence that suggested to many the outlet had ties to DeSantis supporters. In the interview, Witt openly praised DeSantis and allowed him to make multiple unchallenged claims about his record. Later, when DeSantis’ administration rejected an AP African American Studies course on the grounds that it was “woke indoctrination,” it was the Florida Standard that scored the first copy of the syllabus. National outlets like the New York Times and NBC cited the publication’s scoop in their articles.

Republican candidates, their campaigns, and many GOP presidential-primary voters are united in their contempt for those who ask questions during press conferences and debate moderators. But that attitude raises the question of what these groups want the news media to do during a Republican presidential primary. Do Republican primary voters have any questions they’d like to see their potential nominee asked? Do they just want to run this primary on autopilot, sitting back and watching a series of speeches and scripted applause lines, with no questions or off-the-cuff answers?

Or do some Republicans just want to skip the primary process entirely? A few days ago, Kari Lake — who still insists she won the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election — declared, “This primary is over. It’s time to rally around Donald Trump. We must focus our energy on exposing that fool Joe Biden, registering voters, and funding ballot chasing operations in swing states. We should not be wasting time and money fighting ourselves.” Our old friend John Fund observed, “This is from the woman who didn’t trust the polls when she ran in 2022.”

Trump says he won’t participate in at least one of the debates, although this might be his usual drama-generating tactics.

A lot of people on the right justifiably slam President Biden for rarely doing interviews and holding press conferences. If Republicans think Biden should come out and subject himself to questions that he might not like, why is it not important for Republican officials and presidential candidates to do the same?

As I intermittently disclose, I really like South Carolina senator and potential GOP presidential option Tim Scott. But even the most charismatic and likeable figures can have bad days and fumble in the face of direct questions that pin them down on thorny issues.

In mid April, Scott had an exchange with CBS News political correspondent Caitlin Huey-Burns about abortion that was less than ideal:

Scott: There’s no question that we’re gonna have a lot of folks talk about legislation from a federal perspective, but what I’ve heard so far, and what I’ve seen in the Senate, aren’t proposals, but those from the left trying to figure out how to continue their campaign towards late-term abortions, even allowing abortions based on the gender of the child or the race of the child or the disabilities of the child.

Huey-Burns: As a president, if you were president, would you advocate for federal limits?

Scott: Yeah, so once again, I — once again, I’m 100 percent pro-life, and I do believe –

Huey-Burns: So, yes?

Scott: That’s — that’s not what I said. I do believe that we should have a robust conversation about what’s happening in the, on a very important topic there’s no doubt that when I’m sitting in a banking hearing having a conversation about financial issues, and you have the Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen talking about young poor African American women having abortions to increase their labor force participation rate. I was stunned into silence.

Some pro-lifers — not all — will sense a contradiction between declaring yourself “100 percent pro-life” and then punting on the question of whether there should be federal legislation restricting or banning abortions.

The following day, Scott was in New Hampshire, and offered another less-than-fully clear answer on a similar question:

Questioner: Would you support a federal ban on abortions?

Scott: I would simply say that the fact of the matter is, when you look at the issue of abortion, one of the challenges that we have we continue to go to the most restrictive conversations without broadening the scope. Taking a look at the fact that I’m 100 pro-life. I never walk away from that. But the truth of the matter is that when you look at the issues on abortion, I start with the very important conversation I had in a banking hearing, when I was sitting in my office and listening to Janet Yellen, the Secretary of the Treasury, talk about increasing the labor force participation rate for African-American women who are in poverty, by having abortions. I think we’re just having the wrong conversation. I ran down to the banking hearing to see if I heard her right. Are you actually saying that a mom like mine should have an abortion, so that we increase the labor force participation rate? That just seems ridiculous to me. And so, I’m going to continue to have a serious conversation about the issues that affect the American people. I won’t start by pointing out the absolute hypocrisy of the Left on the most one of the more important issues.

We can all agree that it’s rather ghoulish for Janet Yellen to argue that abortion should remain legal because Roe v. Wade “helped lead to increased labor force participation.” But that anecdote doesn’t really answer the question of whether a President Tim Scott would sign federal legislation restricting or banning abortion nationwide if Congress sent it to his desk in the Oval Office. If the answer is “yes,” say yes. If the answer is, “no,” say no. And if the answer is, “I’m not sure, I’m still thinking about it,” let the electorate know that, too.

The presidency is not an easy job, and a candidate doesn’t get prepared for the challenges of running the executive branch and being commander in chief by doing softball interviews.

Do the people who work for campaigns, and those who most ardently support a particular candidate, think the purpose of the people covering the campaign is to make the candidate look good? Because if that’s the expectation, everybody’s always going to be disappointed. If candidates, campaigns, and their fan bases envision every publication and channel covering the candidate as gushingly as Breitbart covers Trump, or MSNBC covers Biden, they’re envisioning a political system with no independent press, just different varieties of spokesmen and salesmen.

Can reporters cover Republicans campaigns unfairly? Absolutely and indisputably. DeSantis’s foreign trip got mostly critical coverage, reminiscent of the harsh coverage of Mitt Romney’s 2012 foreign trip. But that trip including an infamous incident: Romney was completing his visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland, as reporters shrieked, “WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES? DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUR GAFFES HAVE OVERSHADOWED YOUR FOREIGN TRIP?”

Let’s put aside that this is occurring just outside a national memorial tomb, the equivalent of shouting questions as a candidate is departing a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Do you think that Romney thought his gaffes had overshadowed his foreign trip? Even in the astronomically unlikely scenario where he did think that, do you think he would ever say so to the reporters there?

There’s a middle ground between softballs and variations of, “Why do you suck so much?”

Notoriously bad campaign journalism stirs the ire of Republican primary voters, which makes press-bashing popular on the GOP campaign trail. But this also serves candidates’ purposes by delegitimizing any press coverage they don’t like, or any questions they would prefer not to answer. You, as a presidential-primary voter, shouldn’t just fall in love with some candidate. You should want to kick the tires and see how they do when they get asked tough questions — particularly when almost every presidential candidate just assumes they’ll have a cooperative Congress once they step into the Oval Office.

And if those who want to be commander in chief find interacting with the press too irritating and inconvenient, and if vast swaths of the candidates’ supporters find the expectation that a candidate interact with the press unreasonable . . . what is the point of this process?

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