By Jules Witcover
9:49 AM EDT, March 25, 2013
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, in an ambitious effort to direct a party makeover in wake of its defeat last November, has targeted the next presidential cycle's debates and primaries.
A new party entity called the Growth and Opportunity Project (GOP — get it?) recommends that the number of primary-period debates be sharply reduced and that the primary schedule start earlier and be curtailed in 2016. The theory is that there was too much of a good thing in 2011-12, and the process lasted so long it severely damaged the chances of electing a Republican president.
There's much to be said for such logic, considering how the multicandidate GOP field committed mutual destruction in the course of the 2012 primary period, and how the late party conventions, running into September, delayed the general election campaign lost by nominee Mitt Romney.
To run that course successfully, starting in 2011 through 20 Republican debates, the once-moderate Mr. Romney felt obliged to transform himself into a card-carrying conservative, a metamorphosis that was contradictory and debilitating. In the end, he was left an unconvincing political commodity, blamed by many in the party for the defeat.
In the process also, the trotting out of the army of squabbling misfits, from Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, showed the party in an unappealing light over too long a time.
Furthermore, the tail of the dog, the television and cable news outlets, often was in charge, setting the schedule, format and duration of the debates, luring the candidates into unfavorable circumstances they found difficult or risky to avoid. The national exposure was too tempting to turn down.
So Mr. Priebus is now trying to bring some order to the chaos by recommending an RNC takeover of the whole shebang, even to the point of proposing penalties against presidential campaigns that don't comply. He threatens the loss of national convention delegates by violators.
The problem, though, is that presidential candidates aren't likely to subordinate their own campaign strategies and self-interest to the desires of the national party committee. They will, as in the past, do what they believe is in the best interests of themselves as determined by themselves and their most trusted political advisers.
In the past, efforts by either major party to impose the loss of convention delegates on violators of party dictates, such as the dates of state primaries, have been brushed aside. Traditionally early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire have always ignored such threats, and they now are routinely kept in the front of the calendar.
As for having the Republican National Committee moving in on the television sponsorship and management of primary debates, the Priebus report observes that perhaps the RNC should create an organization to host the debates it sanctions. But it notes "it will remain important to work closely with the media so they agree to broadcast them. After all, there is no point in putting on a debate that almost no one watches. It makes no sense to take back the debates so we can keep them to ourselves."
The report recommends that no more than 10 to 12 primary-period debates be held in the next cycle, starting no earlier than September 2015 and ending by March 2016, so that candidates would have sufficient time to prepare for the national convention. It would then begin no later than July, thereby lengthening the general election period that in 2012 did not start until September. Also suggested is a system of regional primaries to cut down on candidate spending and travel.
All these proposals unrealistically assume a willingness of 2016 presidential candidates and their campaigns to make their own decisions on the dates, times, participation in and ground rules for the debates, and of the television outlets to cooperate without the input they had in 2012.
Chairman Priebus deserves credit for trying to bring greater order and good sense to the whole process, and good wishes for the attempt. But he probably will need a lot more than that to get the GOP campaigns of 2016 to give up any of their control of what's best for their own presidential hopefuls.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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