Thursday, March 7, 2013

More on the RNC Rules and Presidential Primary Debates

RNC Chair Reince Priebus was on with Hugh Hewitt yesterday and the rules of the presidential primary process were among the topics of discussion. The biggest news out of the interview is that the RNC Growth and Opportunity Project -- the five person group charged with examining the whys and hows of the GOP's 2012 electoral fortunes -- is set to roll out some of its findings and some recommendations on March 18.

Part of those recommendations clearly seems to be how the RNC will deal with presidential primary debates in the 2016 cycle. FHQ has already weighed in on this to some extent. But that was more a discussion of the party attempting to regulate the competition among state parties for and resultant number of debates. What Priebus and Hewitt talk about in their interview is something altogether different.  Hewitt even goes as far as framing the process as "mold[ing] the debates".

That is a much different proposition.

That is almost scripting debates, and truth be told, that is an even tougher goal to manufacture and regulate. The presidential election process already has scripted debates during the general election. No, those debates are not expressly scripted, but the candidates usually have a pretty good idea about what's coming in terms of the questions and have prepared for them. And still "accidents" happen. Ask Obama about Denver or McCain about his "that one" comment in 2008 or go on down the line about debate gaffes in the television era.

But the thing is, those moments really don't seem to drive the outcome of presidential elections.

And now the RNC appears to be proffering a series of hypotheses along these lines:
H1: Presidential primary debates create/drive up intra-party divisiveness.
H2: The media amplifies intra-party divisiveness.
H3: Intra-party divisiveness negatively affects that party's candidate in the general election.
All of these are reasonable hypotheses. They certainly merit some exploration. [And, mind you, the Democratic Party will also have to consider this very same issue in some way.] But they strike FHQ as incomplete if not ill-formed. All of this seems to hinge on the notion that these primary debates are creating an atmosphere that is not helpful to the national party's goal of nominating a candidate who can  in turn win the general election. Perhaps they are not helpful in that regard. Again, that is reasonable. But that also seems to gloss over several additional points or questions that are hugely important in all of this:
Q1: What if the intra-party divisiveness already exists?
Q2: What if it is not or has not been dormant or latent, but present all along?
Q3: Further, what if the very nature of the entire presidential primary process -- the battle to win contests, delegates and media attention -- is going to bring that divisiveness out with or without presidential primary debates? 
FHQ gets the intent of the media amplification hypotheses. But it seems to me that those things are going to come out (the media is going to amplify) anyway if they exist. Ron Paul supporters would have raised hell over the perception that a number of caucuses were handled unfairly, not to mention the treatment of their delegates in Tampa with or without debates. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich would have attacked Mitt Romney the very same way with or without those occasional national television platforms. And the media following along and reporting on the process would continue to have had the incentive to talk about those same divisions in the party -- divisions that also exist in the Republican caucuses on the Hill -- to the extent they were represented by voices (candidates) involved in the race. And they were represented. There were establishment/Tea Party/libertarian fault lines in the Republican Party before there were debates and there were always candidates who represented those constituencies.

The nomination process is a tough nut to crack for the national parties. There are a lot of moving parts involved (Debates are just one.), and the parties are constantly trying to define and regulate the best possible conditions ahead of time. Never an easy task. As I said above, the Democrats will likely examine this debates issue as well. I am hard-pressed to envision a scenario where it does not come up in the Rules and Bylaws Committee discussions. But the debates a factor that, while there is some hope for control (from the parties' perspectives), may not actually yield all that much benefit if the party is already divided.

FHQ is not saying that the RNC should not look into this issue; only that the benefits are not exactly clear. That said, the best way to test this is to change the rules and see how the process is impacted. But if the Obama presidency follows any kind of downward trajectory and/or the economy takes a turn for the worse over the next two to three years, the number and scope of Republican (or Democratic) primary debates won't matter a whole lot in 2016. That may even be true if the current conditions remain static in the interim.

Hat tip to David Drucker at Roll Call for passing this along.

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