Has the Republican Party just reined in its formerly freewheeling presidential primary debates?
The question arises because of a vote taken Friday by the Republican National Committee at its summer meeting in Boston. On the surface, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the RNC’s subject. But that’s only partly what the action was about.
With the vote in question, RNC members unanimously approved a resolution banning party cooperation with CNN and NBC on 2016 presidential debates if the networks air scheduled special programs on Mrs. Clinton.
CNN is planning a Clinton documentary, and NBC is working on a dramatized miniseries of her life.
“These programming decisions are an attempt to show political favoritism and put a thumb on the scales for the next presidential election,” the RNC resolution says.
Networks don’t need the RNC’s permission to schedule primary debates. But the resolution greatly increases the chances that state Republican parties and other conservative organizations won’t partner with CNN or NBC on debates and that even if they do, candidates won’t agree to appear.
However, the resolution did not end there. It also stated: “the Republican National Committee shall endeavor to bring more order to the primary debates and ensure a reasonable number of debates, appropriate moderators and debate partners are chosen ....”
In other words, the RNC used the right’s uproar over the Clinton shows to get (and pass) a vote on the general nature of the 2016 debates.
“The RNC’s very vocal outrage over the [Clinton] projects gave party leaders a perfect excuse to do what they’ve long wanted to do anyway: get some control over a process that led to 20 grueling primary debates last cycle and gave Mitt Romney many chances to get himself into trouble with comments about self-deportation, contraception, and the like,” writes James Hohmann in Politico.
Of course, current party unanimity on this subject could erode the closer the actual primary season gets.
While front-running or establishment candidates such as Mr. Romney may have every incentive to avoid exposure in unpredictable debate settings, underdogs or insurgent candidates have every incentive to do whatever they can to break through and gain voter appeal.
Remember Newt Gingrich’s 2012 debate performances? His skewering of opponents and moderators alike helped produce a victory in the South Carolina primary and briefly powered him to the top of national polls.
Given such history, rogue candidates might still join with rogue states or party groups in debate settings.
“[It’s] tough to regulate candidate participation in these things,” tweeted noted campaign rules expert Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist, on Friday.
Still, the RNC’s action may be a first step toward something some conservatives are now urging: eventual control of the means of production of debates.
In today’s broadband world, the mainstream media no longer control the communication pipelines into voter living rooms. Given that, why partner with the media and allow them to control candidate questions?
Why not go all the way and have RNC-run debates with conservative hosts? Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, for one, has suggested just that, perhaps with Rush Limbaugh as moderator.
Mr. Limbaugh himself rejected that idea on his show Thursday, saying, “I’m too famous” to moderate debates.
By that he means that he’d be a distraction.
“I’m talking about the media reporting at the end of it more on me and trying to poke holes at me than what the candidates are saying. That’s all I mean,” he said.