When Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus "suspended" the party's agreement to hold a debate with NBC on February 26, he took care to say that whether or not NBC was involved, the debate, which was set to include questions from partner National Review, would go on as scheduled.
"While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it," Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC.
As the debate approaches, however, it's likely that critics will raise questions about the participation of National Review, the venerable conservative publication, because of a number of comments made by its writers and editors about Donald Trump. (I should put in a disclaimer high in the story: I worked for National Review from 2001 to 2009 and know, like and respect many of the people involved in this matter.)
To put it mildly, a lot of NR writers don't like Trump.
For example, on June 16, when Trump announced his candidacy, NR roving correspondent Kevin D. Williamson analyzed the event in a piece headlined "Witless Ape Rides Escalator." Williamson called Trump "the most ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula." Also: 'a reality-television grotesque with his plastic-surgery-disaster wife, grunting like a baboon about our country's 'brand' and his own vast wealth." And: "not just an ass, but an ass of exceptionally intense asininity." And, of course, a "witless ape."
In August, NR writer Charles C.W. Cooke called Trump a "virus." "A plague is sweeping the land, gathering victims of all shapes and sizes and turning them into fools," Cooke wrote. "Its name — for now — is Trumpism." Cooke has also called Trump "a preposterous little trust-fund wuss" and "a thin-skinned performance artist."
In July, NR's "The Week" feature, written jointly by its staff, said of Trump's candidacy: "'Cometh the hour, cometh the reality-television star,'" or, as Stephen Sondheim put it, "'Send in the clowns.'"
Also in July, NR senior editor Jonah Goldberg called Trump "a low-rent carnival barker." In April, Goldberg hit Trump for hypocrisy in a Twitter exchange over attitudes toward women and added: "I think his hypocrisy is merely the Rose Window of the larger cathedral of Trumpian asininity here." In January, Goldberg said on Fox News that Trump "has a long record of clownishly pretending he'll run for president," and, a moment later, called Trump "a bane of humanity." (Goldberg later said — convincingly for those who follow him — that the "bane of humanity" part was "a bit tongue-in-cheek."
Finally, in perhaps the most notorious hostile analysis of the presidential race so far, National Review editor Rich Lowry said on Fox News in September that rival candidate Carly Fiorina "cut [Trump's] balls off with the precision of a surgeon" in the second Republican debate. Later, Lowry got into a heated Twitter exchange with Trump, saying, "I thought the Carly cut your balls off line might bother you, but you know it's true …" and "A deal for you, Donald: if you apologize to Carly for your boorish insult, I might stop noting how she cut your b**** off."
That could make for an interesting atmosphere, should Lowry and Trump share a debate stage.
Trump is of course not the only candidate NR writers have criticized; just ask Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and others. But it's fair to say Trump is a special case, and he has been on the receiving end of unusually strong invective from NR.
Lowry says that won't be a problem come debate time. "We obviously have strong opinions and don't hide them, but that won't keep us from being tough but fair with everyone," he told me in an email exchange.
The underlying problem here is that some of the networks have leaned so far left in the past that the RNC felt the need to insist on including someone who "speaks conservative" among the debate panelists. But some of the best conservative speakers are prominent figures at opinion publications who are 1) appalled by Trump, and 2) unconstrained from expressing their feelings about him. That makes for a lively public conversation, but is it a good idea for a presidential debate?