WASHINGTON -- The Republican National Committee, in its after-action report on the 2012 election (known by its nickname, the "RNC Autopsy"), made it a goal to do something about the long-winded primary process that its leaders believe did their efforts more harm than good. The process of "de-suckifying" the presidential primaries has been long developing -- the broad strokes came to light back in December 2013, in a report from CNN's Peter Hamby -- but are now beginning to find form. The RNC has already decided to stage an earlier convention, and to run a disciplined primary calendar. On Friday came news of the third prong of these reforms: making the debate schedule less insane.
There is, perhaps, no worthier goal. If you can bear to recall the last time there was a GOP presidential primary, the debate season was baffling and horrible to all living creatures. When I look back on the schedule from that cycle, I still feel the dread, deep in my bones, lurking like a Korean water ghost.
Look at this nonsense! If you include all the various forums and stunt appearances, the number of debates (or debate-like pseudo-events) add up to 27 occasions in which candidates had to meet and spar with one another. There was a debate on May 5, 2011. May 5, 2011! CNN, which is bad at debates, staged seven. In one particularly idiotic period, there was an ABC News debate on the night of Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, followed by an NBC News debate on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 8. What could possibly happen overnight to necessitate such a thing? "Question to Rick Santorum, followed by a one-minute rebuttal from Jon Huntsman: What did you dream about last night? Did you sleep okay?"
That was a clown debate schedule, bro. The good news is that the RNC has actually maybe found a way to de-clown it. Per Politico's James Hohmann and Alex Isenstadt:
The Republican National Committee will announce Friday that it has sanctioned nine presidential primary debates, starting this August in Ohio and continuing through March 2016, with the potential to add a few more.
A committee within the RNC and top staffers have been working for nearly a year on an effort to cut the number of debates roughly in half from the 2012 cycle. There have been high-level conversations between party leaders and executives at the nation’s broadcast and cable channels.
What they've come up with makes a lot more sense. The schedule, as outlined, features nine debates, with the option to add three more if a competitive primary persists into the month of March. The earliest debate is August 2015, which is still too early, really, but at least it's not May. The RNC is going to limit the debates so they are more geographically diverse -- no state will host more than one debate. And CNN is only getting two debates (three if the race extends into March), thus reducing the role that Wolf Blitzer will play in all of this.
What of the other networks? Fox News will get the first crack at the candidates in the aforementioned August debate. In the nine-debate scenario, Fox News (or Fox Business) will get two more debates. CNBC, CBS, ABC, and NBC News (in partnership with Telemundo) get one each. Should the primary season roll into March, Fox and CNN would host additional debates, with the 12th debate being advertised as a "Conservative Media Debate."
Back in March 2014, the RNC was talking about imposing a greater amount of control over who gets to moderate the debates. According to Politico's Katie Glueck, RNC officals were mulling the demand to "hand-pick" the moderators. At the time, it wasn't clear what sort of role the big news networks would play in this process, as RNC chairman Reince Priebus seemed inclined to feature only ideological allies as debate moderators. As Hohmann and Isenstadt report, it's more clear that the RNC is pushing for a "partnership" between "mainstream media organizations" and "more conservative commentators and outlets."
What's to stop a candidate, thirsty for additional attention, from breaking with the RNC's plan and attending an unsanctioned debate? Here's where the RNC wields the stick. According to Hohmann and Isenstadt, "any candidate who participates in a non-sanctioned debate will not be allowed to participate in any more sanctioned debates."
What are the ramifications here? Well, there will be fewer opportunities for candidates on the fringes of polling, or who are short of money, to use these free media appearances to generate momentum. That likely means that this cycle won't become the wild tilt-a-whirl of flash-in-the-pan frontrunners for which the last GOP primary cycle is best known. However, it probably limits the ability of a candidate to do what Rick Santorum did -- slowly punch his way to relevance over the course of a long and varied debate season.
From the standpoint of the media, this process may be one step on a slippery slope. Good people can debate (though, please, not 20 times) whether seeking to have your candidates confronted by moderators that are more ideologically inclined in their direction smacks of smarts or cowardice. Speaking only for myself, I don't see any reason why conservative moderators in a GOP primary debate wouldn't ask substantive, hard-hitting questions, but I'm prepared to find out that I'm wrong. As far as this issue goes, the Democrats can't claim purity -- back in 2007, the Democratic candidates, by dribs and drabs, backed out of a debate on Fox News.
What's more concerning is the fact that this debate schedule's been set with memories of Priebus making broad threats about various outlets' editorial decisions still fresh in the memory. Back in 2013, Priebus -- angry about a Hillary Clinton miniseries in production at NBC, and a Hillary documentary by Charles Ferguson coming from CNN -- threatened to sanction the two networks. The punishment? Refusing to allow them to stage a sanctioned primary debate. (Worth noting again: It completely eludes me why Priebus thought that Charles Ferguson was going to do a Hillary hagiography, given his past work. Clinton's allies were, if anything, even more eager to get the documentary canceled than Priebus was.)
Those two projects, having been scuttled, no longer loom over the landscape as matters of concern. Still, if past is prologue, it's not hard to see how being extended the opportunity to stage a debate might color a news organization's editorial decisions. How much criticism of the candidates can, say, CBS News induge in before Priebus tells the network it's no longer allowed to join in any reindeer games?
Also at issue is the role of local news organizations and newspapers, whose involvement in the debate process is unclear at this time. It's very possible that future announcements will bring state-based media and publications into the fold as partners -- there's certainly a longstanding precedent for it. This is something Priebus should consider carefully: I consider it near-axiomatic that if you want a media that's disinclined to fixate on the Hot Gaffe Of The Week, look to the locals.
So there's no guarantee that this process won't, in the end, prove to be problematic. Still, not having 20-some-odd debates is something that we can all get behind. And here's hoping that the RNC will hand down strong sanctions on anyone who confuses a lectern for a podium.
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