This is yet another reason politics is so fascinating. Meanwhile Democrats can sit back and state ‘Not my monkey. Not my circus.’ This is so going to backfire in one way or another on the Republican Party.
At the start of his career, not long after he helped Richard Nixon win the 1968 election, Roger Ailes boasted to a reporter that television would one day replace the political party as the most powerful force in American politics. If there is any doubt that the Fox News founder has largely made that prediction come true, it should be erased by the panic that next week’s Fox debate is stoking inside the GOP. In a year that features the largest primary field in modern history — not to mention Donald Trump as a front-runner — campaign strategists worry that Ailes’s debate, which is likely to attract the biggest audience in cable-news history, could define the race more than five months before the first votes are cast.
In the absence of a clear answer from the network, advisers for both Kasich and Perry have taken to lobbying Ailes and Fox executives to use polls that put their guy over the line.
The thinking among the strategists I spoke with is that Ailes faces conflicting impulses when it comes to choosing Perry or Kasich. On the one hand, Ailes is certainly hoping to produce the best television, which would give the unpredictable Perry the advantage. “People will want Perry in just because of the ‘oops’ factor,” one GOP media adviser said, referring to Perry’s infamous brain freeze from 2012. Others stressed Kasich’s close relationship with Ailes, an Ohio native. Before getting back into politics, Kasich hosted a weekly Fox show. “Roger likes Kasich,” a Fox insider told me. “Plus Roger knows it’ll look awful if the sitting governor isn’t on that stage.”
For the campaigns that do make prime time, there’s another wild card: Trump. Fox told campaigns this week that the candidates will be lined up onstage according to their poll numbers, with the leader in the center and the others to his left and right. That means if current numbers hold, Trump will be in the center flanked by Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. “There’s a lot of nervousness about where he’s going to be placed and who will be next to him,” one adviser said. In any normal debate, candidates would obviously fight to be in the middle, but being center stage next to Trump could be as much of a liability as an advantage. Who knows what he might do? “It’s almost like you don’t want to be too close,” one campaign adviser says, “in case he self-combusts.”
Inside Fox, the debate is generating controversy among Ailes’s senior ranks. “There’s total confusion about all of it. The Second Floor is making it up as they go along,” one Fox personality told me, referring to Ailes’s executive suite. According to sources, Fox executives are still undecided about which polls to use and who will be allowed on the stage. This week, for example, Fox amended an earlier rule that a candidate had to be polling above one percent to participate after it became clear that Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki wouldn’t even make the 5 p.m. event. There’s also unease among some that Trump will likely get a starring role. “The problem is he’ll act like it’s his show,” another Fox personality told me.