Rand Paul Declines “Kids’ Table” Debate Slot

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s presidential bid took a hit yesterday when Fox Business Network announced that he would not be a participant in the main Republican debate Thursday. Instead, he and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina were moved to the “kids’ table” debate for those candidates who are polling weakly. While Ms. Fiorina apparently will attend along with former Arkansas Governor Mick Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Senator Paul as told the people at Fox that he has better things to do. It is a courageous stand, and had others demonstrated this fortitude earlier, the candidates rather than cable media would be in charge of the campaign.

The Republican National Committee is largely to blame for this sorry mess. With 16 candidates in the race at the peak, a joint press conference (what American TV is pleased to mislabel “debate”) was untenable with everyone attending. Rather than find a different approach, say 30 minute one-on-one interviews with a journalist for each candidate, the RNC let the polls decide who would participate. When those polling poorly (and often due to lack of name recognition alone) complained, an undercard debate for them was arranged — the “kids’ table,” something not to be taken seriously.

By selecting the top 10 or only those candidates who reached a given threshold of support in a variety of polls, the media hosts of the joint press conferences began influencing the campaign itself — a violation of one of the basic rules of journalism; “thou shalt not become part of the story.” Yet, become part of the story they did. Senator Paul, in fact, did not satisfy the requirements of the recent CNN debate but was on the main stage anyway.

Politico.com reports, “it was clear that Paul didn’t meet the criteria Fox Business had outlined prior to Monday’s qualification deadline. The network said it would average the five most recent polls nationally, and in both Iowa and New Hampshire. The top six candidates nationally would qualify — and if any other candidate appeared in the top five in either early state, they would be added.

“Paul was in seventh place nationally and in both early states, according to POLITICO’s calculations.”

Now that Fox Business is excluding him, he sings a slightly different tune. As the threat of relegation to the second division loomed, he said last week, “I think if you have a national campaign, you’ve raised a significant amount of money, you’re on the ballot, you’ve employed staff and you’re actively campaigning, you’ve got to be in the debate.”

Yesterday, he added, “We will not participate in anything that’s not first-tier.” A statement from his campaign echoed this and expanded on the reasoning, “To exclude candidates on faulty analysis is to disenfranchise the voter,” the statement said. “Creating ‘tiers’ based on electoral results of real votes might make sense but creating ‘tiers’ on bad science is irresponsible.” In other words, there is nothing wrong with the premise but the senator did qualify for the main event, according to his people.

By refusing to participate in the undercard event, Senator Paul is taking a gamble. Simply put, he is wagering that he will get more mileage and media attention by picking a fight with the event organizers than he would by spending time talking to the other candidates at the kids’ table. Given how the media have largely ignored the lesser event every time there has been a debate, that is a sound wager. It is a courageous move, but it should pay off. After all, it plays to large section of the GOP base that believes the media are all conspiring against traditional values and conservative policies — even if the media outlet in question is the proto-fascist Fox Business Network.