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RNC chief doubles down on debate boycott. Smart move for GOP?

CNN and NBC remain in the cross hairs of Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus, over their plans for programs about Hillary Clinton. His threat to boycott those networks during the GOP presidential debates has its strategic advantages.

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“The words ‘due diligence’ don’t necessarily go with ‘Reince Priebus’ ... in this case,” said Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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But that criticism focuses on the one-day news cycle. Here’s our question: Is the RNC debate threat a smart strategic move, in the long term?

After all, as far as the national leaders of both parties are concerned, presidential primary debates have gotten out of hand. There are too many – 20 for the GOP in the 2012 cycle. Formats generally aren’t conducive to discussion. They’re controlled by media outlets, which make money from airing them, and state parties, which make money from co-hosting debates and associated fundraisers.

If Priebus wants to cut the debate schedule to 10 to 12, as recommended by the party’s 2012 postmortem, he’s got to start exerting control over the process in some manner. The “dump the docs” effort may be a way to start to do just that.

By making the “liberal” mainstream media the target, Priebus and the RNC can get hosannas of agreement from pretty much every faction of every state party. Linking it to Mrs. Clinton is a bonus in this context, given that she’s the potential 2016 Democratic candidate Republicans most love to dislike.

And why shouldn’t the party pick where debates appear? Slate political analyst Dave Weigel wrote earlier this month that Republicans should debate one another only on Fox.

“That could be fascinating,” wrote Mr. Weigel. “Republicans know exactly how to handle the mainstream media, and they know how to play against it.... They’re often more compelling when their interviews are pushing them from the right.”

Or what about this: Why get any network involved at all? Today’s broadband technology makes it feasible for Republicans to stage and control debates completely, streaming the show to an online audience à la Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Conservative commentator Edward Morrissey made this point in a column in The Week, saying that if Priebus wants to take serious steps toward reform, he should rethink the entire debate structure.

“CNN responded to Priebus’ ultimatum by rejecting the demand, claiming that a refusal to partner with CNN on debates would be ‘the ultimate disservice to voters.’ The ultimate disservice to both voters and candidates is the artificial, game-show circus that got repeated ad infinitum in 2011 and 2012. Priebus would do us all a favor by looking for an alternative that produces serious political debate rather than the Zinger of the Week,” wrote Mr. Morrissey.

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