The GOP Strikes Back

The Republican Party is reining in its primary debates to take control of the crazy.

GOP National Security debate.
Republican presidential candidates stand at attention during the national anthem before the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 22, 2011.

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Do you remember the Republican reality show of 2012? There were 20 episodes. Some people called them “primary debates.” In New Hampshire in January, one debate was held on a Saturday night and another the following Sunday morning, less than 12 hours apart. “The number of debates has become ridiculous,” wrote the authors of the post-2012 election GOP autopsy report commissioned to help the party determine what went wrong in the previous election.

It wasn’t just the quantity of the debates that was a problem. The quality wasn’t great either. Because the polls favored candidates who had good theatrical performances, like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, the process put a premium on zingers, confrontations, and gaffes. (The lowlights: “9-9-9,” “pious baloney,” “Oops,” “$10,000 bet.”) The networks hosting the debates encouraged this behavior. As they competed to distinguish one bout from another, they hyped the events and inflated the stakes with each debate. Given the trajectory of absurdity, it seemed the next logical step was to arm the candidates with swords and let them go at it. 

The Republican National Committee is taking a step Wednesday to fix this problem. At the RNC’s spring meeting, it will announce the formation of a standing committee on debates. The committee will select moderators, evaluate rules, and determine the number of debates. The total number is likely to be half of the previous cycle, and the committee will likely agree to remove delegates from any candidate who participates in a debate outside the party structure. The move will be a test of whether order can be restored to a primary process that gets more unpredictable every election, and whether grass-roots activists will tolerate the top-down meddling.

The Republican Party has to step in because the candidates can’t do it themselves. In 2012, campaign managers say they felt compelled to have their candidates participate in every televised debate because if they didn’t, their opponents would show up and have a free 90 minutes to trash those who were absent. Various campaigns tried to convince their competitors to band together and agree to slow the pace, but someone always broke off and said yes to a network for the free airtime.

Debates are a huge diversion from campaigning and raising money because they require at least a day of preparation, a day to compete, and a day to clean up or celebrate how the candidate did. Multiply that by 20 debates, and that’s 60 days that are out of the campaign’s control. 

The reasonable worry from anyone suspicious of party elders is that limiting the number of debates will give an advantage to candidates who have the backing and financial support of the party establishment. Scrappy candidates, or those who start late, who may not have that much money but thrill members of the movement, need debates to increase their exposure. But that’s just what worries those who want to change the rules. They fear the party will be hijacked by charismatic but unqualified candidates who perform well in contests that do nothing to test whether a candidate is fit for office. These candidates don’t have enough support to win, but they have enough to tear down the party’s eventual nominee in a way that weakens him for the general election.

The Republican Party wants an orderly process so that each candidate can put his best foot forward. We should all want that too. But those who were involved in the previous primary season say a number of other distractions still exist. Republican donors pressuring the RNC to make even more rule changes want conservatives to do the questioning, not journalists from the television networks. Conservative commentators understand the issues primary voters care about. If the networks want to cover the debates, they can cover them like they would a campaign rally.

Critics of the current system also think this would cut down on the show business distractions. The debates have become a marketing opportunity for the networks. That means the shows and the anchors compete with the goal of getting quality answers from the candidates. What the networks want is car crashes, not information. “It’s a little like setting a fire to cover a fire,” says Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s strategist for his presidential campaigns.

The RNC is not breaking its relationship with the networks. The public policy reason is that journalists need to do the questioning, so that it doesn’t look like the party is micromanaging democracy. The other reason is that debates are expensive for anyone who wants to host one (from $500,000 to $1 million, estimates the GOP autopsy report). Plus, the pool of people who can ask questions, manage the candidates, and keep time in a way that makes a broadcast worth watching is actually pretty small. In exchange for this expertise, the Republican Party will still allow news organizations to run the show but try to convince networks to salt in more conservative voices. 

But the media don’t get all the blame. They’re not the only ones who want to put on a good show. Candidates use debate performances to raise money, which is more important than ever to fund increasingly expensive campaigns and fight off super PAC challenges. Money follows buzz, and candidates will still be encouraged to court buzz by being good theater performers no matter how the RNC tries to control things. 

If the RNC is successful in bringing order to the debates, it will be the latest step in the resuscitation of the political parties. The future influence of the political parties was in question after soft money donations to parties were banned as a part of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform and the Obama team successfully grew an organization that eclipsed the Democratic National Committee. Now after the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, donations to the political parties are likely to increase. (The RNC is already taking advantage of the new rules.) The RNC is also working like mad to produce a permanent campaign apparatus that targets voters and turns them out to match the one the Obama team has built over the years. If the party creates a permanent structure that candidates can plug into when they run, that will give the party more control of the campaign process.

For some, the death of the debate free-for-all may suggest the 2016 campaign will lack excitement. (You can stop practicing with the broadsword, Sen. Santorum.) But the GOP field will be the strongest it has been in recent memory, with five or more governors or former governors and at least three from the Senate. There will be plenty of heated debates.