The fight Priebus should have chosen: the debates themselves

Reince Priebus issued ultimatums to CNN and NBC to withdraw programs focusing on the political life of Hillary Clinton they plan to air, arguing that the move demonstrates bias toward the presumed Democratic frontrunner.  Both broadcasters rejected the demand, and the RNC chair will presumably push for a binding resolution from the GOP to refuse to sanction any debates in the 2016 presidential primary cycle on those channels.  We’ll see if the RNC plays along for now, but National Journal’s Brian Resnick wonders whether Preibus’ assumption that the movies will hurt Republicans is all that solid.  In fact, he picks up on Allahpundit’s suggestion that the movies give Priebus a free pass to keep state parties from acting independently to add debates to the schedule:


In the 2012 election cycle, there were 20 GOP primary debates, and many—including the RNC—thought thatwas a bit of overkill. According to a GOP post-mortem, the number of debates should be reduced “to a still robust number of approximately 10 to 12, with the first occurring no earlier than September 1, 2015, and the last ending just after the first several primaries.”

But doing so is kind of tricky, since many of the local arms of the Republican parties gain money from the debates, explains Zeke Miller at Time:

But the effort to cut back on the number of debates has run into headwinds from Republican state parties in early states, who in many instances see revenue from co-hosting the debates and associated events. The autopsy recommends changing the RNC rules to include penalties for Republican state parties or candidates if they participate in debates unsanctioned by the RNC.

To date that provision has not caught on.

It’s just a theory, of course, but maybe one way to reduce the number of debates without ruffling any Republican feathers is to blame it on the Clinton miniseries. An anonymous RNC insider relays to Miller that the letter is designed to make limiting the number of debates a bit easier.

I’d say it also helps in shaping a particular battleground in advance of the next cycle — the media battleground.  With conservative activists irate at the lack of pushback against the broadcasters in the debates who manipulated agendas and engaged in debating themselves, Priebus’ offensive against CNN and NBC will score political points and help bring Tea Party supporters closer to the GOP.  Airing hagiographies of Clinton — if they are indeed such, which is unknown at the moment — makes that an even easier case to make.  Think of it as drawing a line in the sand early, and putting broadcasters on notice that the RNC will get a lot more aggressive about defending it this time around.  That kind of effort is an easy sell to the base, and indeed what it has long demanded of the Republican Party leadership.


Still, this is an opportunity missed to fix what’s truly broken about the primaries, which is the format itself.  In my column today for The Week, I outline the real problems with the traditional zinger-producing format, and wonder why the revolution in broadband technology hasn’t inspired either or both parties to take the entire effort in-house:

But let’s focus on the real problem in all of these cases: The format of the primary debates. Voters need to know how candidates think on complicated issues and policies. Instead of giving them time to flesh out answers and discuss any nuances of approach, the format locks candidates into absurdly short responses and rebuttals. Too often, the result is a rushed recitation of campaign talking points, with little or no original thought.

Worse yet, the media coverage of these debates end up focusing less on the substance of the answers than the rehearsed one-liners candidates use to needle each other. Analysts have little to judge from these debates other than superficialities such as posture, facial expressions, and the relative skill of the candidates’ tailors, which is why they latch onto the zingers as if the entire process is designed to produce the best master of ceremonies for the White House Correspondents Dinner. Parties with open primaries end up with a stage full of damaged candidates before the first ballots in primaries and caucuses get cast.

Furthermore, it’s not just Priebus who should be concerned about the ridiculous spectacle of these debates. The potential risk in the 2016 cycle extends to both parties, unlike 2012 when Democrats had an unchallenged incumbent. Hillary Clinton blew her cool in a December 2007 primary debate when challenged on states’ issuance of drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, changing her position in the course of her answer, on a subject that had little relation to the presidency. While the Republican primary will be up for grabs, Clinton starts off as the presumed frontrunner in the 2016 cycle, just as she did in 2008, which makes her the big target for everyone else. Clinton could end up as damaged as Mitt Romney after the 2012 primary debates.

If Priebus wants to take serious steps toward reform, he should rethink the entire debate structure. Instead of beat-the-buzzer formats with as many as a dozen candidates on stage at once, the RNC chair should look into formats that have only two or three candidates discussing issues at a time, with a moderator chosen for either neutrality or statesmanship within the party rather than to promote a media outlet’s own reporters. The candidates could rotate through the discussions over a series of events, and the RNC could invite broadcasters to air the debates themselves or have reporters attend them. Given the reach of broadband access, the RNC could live-stream those debates themselves and bypass media outlets altogether. That would put candidates in the best possible position to connect with voters and challenge each other on substance based on their own agendas rather than those of the media outlets.


Mediator bias is a real problem, but it’s the reliance on media outlets for broadcasting the debates that introduces the opportunity for bias in the first place.  (If that’s the problem that Priebus wants to correct, read the column to see why I think a bigger issue is ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.)  The conventional wisdom is that debates need the broadcasters to reach viewers and the trade-off is the imposition of political reporters as moderators, but I’d challenge that assumption.  Even airing on broadcast networks, primary debates aren’t going to pull in casual viewers, and motivated viewers would have little trouble finding the debates on a GOP internet channel instead.  The political media will still report on the debates, but they would no longer dictate the agendas and the questions — a role which really belongs to press conferences and interviews anyway.  And candidates are hardly likely to stop doing either, especially those in need of bigger media exposure to challenge front-runners.

That’s the direction of real reform, which would actually improve the standing of the party’s candidates rather than turn them into Match Game panelists.  It’s at least worth trying — if for no other reason than to send a stronger message to broadcasters that they are not indispensable to this process, and to state parties that the RNC will remain in control of debates.

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