Fewer GOP debates: Party seeks to corral the crazy

    Republican leaders have come up with a purportedly bright idea to make their ’16 presidential candidates more appealing to the electorate.

    They plan to slash the number of TV debates, and recruit friendlier questioners.

    You read that right. The Republican National Committee thinks the cure to the party’s ills (five popular vote defeats in the last six elections) is to ensure that viewers see the candidates far less often, and that the candidates be exposed far less often to potentially adversarial questions. Accordingly, RNC members decreed last Friday that the ’16 candidates shall participate only in debates sanctioned by the RNC. The ’12 candidates debated each other 20 times; the aim is to cut that number in half.

    But the party’s problem during the ’12 primary season was not the quantity of debates. It was the quality of the discourse.

    Lest we forget, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debated each other roughly 20 times during the ’08 primary season – and they wound up strengthening the Democratic party, touting issues that resonated with the autumn electorate. The Republicans’ big problem last time around was that their motley crew of candidates couldn’t withstand the same amount of exposure.

    A pizza mogul who didn’t know anything, a has-been ex-House Speaker whose power had peaked in 1995, an ex-Pennsylvania senator who’d been thrown out of office in a landslide, a Texas governor who couldn’t even remember his own talking points, a rabid-right congresswoman who kept the fact-check industry at full employment…the ’12 debates exposed them all. Which is why the RNC thinks the party will be far better off if viewers have fewer opportunities to scrutinize the next crop of candidates. (Problem is, Ted Cruz will still embarrass the party in front of the nation, regardless of whether there are 10 debates or 20.)

    We’ll have to see whether the RNC can even enforce its mandate. The goal is to rig the game for the candidates with broad establishment donor support (Jeb Bush types) by making life more difficult for the upstart insurgents (Cruz and Rand Paul types) who’d benefit most from the free exposure that abundant debates provide. Under the RNC decree, any candidate who participates in a debate not sanctioned by the party could be barred from subsequent sanctioned debates.

    In other words, the RNC wants to corral the crazy, to more effectively hide the party id from the American public.

    The RNC also thinks the candidates will be more appealing if the debate questions are nicer. It has somehow convinced itself that things went wrong last time only because “the liberal media” was very, very mean. As party chairman Reince Priebus demagogued last Friday, “The liberal media doesn’t deserve to be in the driver’s seat.” His spokesman, Sean Spicer, wants to enlist questioners from friendly right-wing outlets like Breitbart, Newsmax, and The Daily Caller.

    (I’d love to hear their questions. “Since we all can agree, Senator Cruz, that Benghazi is the most sinfully far-reaching scandal in American history, in what ways would you invoke Benghazi to further convince the disgusted average American that Obamacare is a socialist overthrow of the relationship between a patient and his doctor – as decreed by Sharia law?”)

    But seriously. Is there anything in politics more amusing than the ongoing Republican penchant for self-delusion? Because if we check the debate transcripts from the ’12 primary season, we quickly discover that the most embarrassing Republican remarks were not sparked by “liberal media” questions. The wounds were actually self-inflicted.

    Take, for instance, Rick Perry’s candidacy-killer. (“And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the, uh – what’s the third one there? Let’s see – OK. Commerce, Education, and the – I would do away with Education, uh, the, uh, Commerce, and, let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”) That was not even in response to a question. CNBC’s John Harwood had asked Mitt Romney about how he had worked with Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature. After Mitt spoke, Harwood offered Perry an open invitation to respond. Perry took it from there.

    On another night, Romney offered to make a “$10,000 bet” with Perry – a bad moment for Mitt, since most Americans are ill-positioned financially to bet that kind of money. But, again, no questioner prompted Mitt’s remark. The episode began when Michele Bachmann voluntarily declared that Mitt had “put into place socialized medicine” in Massachusetts. Perry jumped in, and accused Mitt of omitting key health policy details from the paperback edition of his campaign book. Mitt denied that, and volunteered his pricey bet. The moderator, George Stephanopolous, was a mere spectator.

    And no “liberal media” moderator prodded Herman Cain to opine on the crisis in Libya this way: “OK, Libya. (Ten-second pause.) President Obama supported the uprising, correct? President Obama called for the removal of Gadhafi. I just wanted to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before I say, ‘Yes, I agreed’ or ‘No, I didn’t agree.’ I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason – nope, that’s a different one. (Pause.) I gotta go back and see. I got all this stuff twirling around in my head.” Cain didn’t even say that during a debate; he was recorded on video in a room in Wisconsin.

    So the GOP shouldn’t bother trying to game the debates. If it wants to do better in ’16, the answer is simple: Get better candidates.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.