Sunday, May 6, 2018

Protecting the President? RNC Eliminates Primary Debates Committee

Just fours after it created the committee to sanction presidential primary debates, the Republican National Committee this past week at its 2018 spring meeting voted to strike the rule from its rulebook.

There are a couple of points that FHQ would raise both in reaction to the rules change and the coverage it has garnered.

On the rules change itself, some context is in order. Often FHQ talks of the national parties fighting the last battle when it comes to fashioning their delegate selection rules for a coming presidential nomination cycle. Indeed, the modus operandi of the national parties has tended to be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is necessarily backward looking. The national parties look back to the most recent evidence they have on how well or how poorly the system is working and attempt to make corrections to address any shortcomings for future cycles.

The Democrats' efforts in assembling their rules for the 2020 cycle are littered with examples of this. But it should also be said that the very creation of Rule 10(a)(10) -- the 2014 rule then known as Rule 10(h) that created the Standing Committee on Presidential Primary debates -- also fits this mold.   Coming off a 2012 cycle that saw 20 debates, the Republican National Committee was intent on reining in not only the number of primary debates but also in creating some oversight for state party/media partnerships for those debates. The solution was the creation of a national party entity to sanction official Republican Party debates.

Again, that action fits the pattern. Fixing a perceived 2012 problem for the 2016 cycle.

However, the vote at the 2018 RNC spring meeting to eliminate the debates committee broke with that pattern. Rather than fixing a problem from 2016, the RNC is seeking instead to proactively plan for the 2020 renomination of an incumbent Republican president. And the rationale is simple enough:  Why have a debates-sanctioning committee when the party is lined up behind the current occupant of the White House?

At least that is part of the rationale. Another is that this has been widely viewed as an effort by the Republican National Committee to protect President Trump from would-be 2020 Republican challengers. This, too, is something a break from the norm. The predominant pattern for nomination rules creation in the post-reform era has been for parties out of the White House to attempt to tinker their way back in; to put together a process that ideally will produce a candidate well-equipped to defeat the incumbent president.

That leaves the party in the White House to, more often than not, rest on their laurels when it comes to its nomination rules. The motivation -- the urgency -- just does not exist in the same way that it does for the out-party. First, presidents, in a position over their national parties, tend to like the process that nominated them in the first place. But the typical inactivity or minimal activity from in-parties is also a function of the fact that incumbent presidents do not often see challenges to their renomination.

And when those challenges have materialized, there has not been much evidence of the parties maneuvering to protect their presidents at the rules-making stage of the cycle. Republicans at the 1988 Republican National Convention, for example, were not planning ahead for a future that included a 1992 Pat Buchanan challenge to the presidential candidate they were nominating. The party's concern then was more about lining up behind Vice President Bush. Bear in mind that at that point in time Republicans set their rules for the subsequent cycle at the preceding convention. There was no rules-making infrastructure in place then to amend the Republican rules of the nomination process outside the convention.

Nor do we see much evidence of the Democratic National Committee moving to protect President Carter ahead of the 1980 cycle. That is the only other time in the post-reform era where a sitting president had either persistent chatter about a challenge to his nomination or an actual challenge.

Now, there were rules changes that the Democratic Party made for the 1980 cycle, but the motivation behind those rules changes was not exactly to protect the president from a prospective Kennedy challenge. This was the cycle where the DNC formally added a threshold for candidates to qualify for delegates. Four years early, in 1976, the party had allowed states to add a qualifying threshold of up to 15 percent of the vote in a primary or caucus. Candidates who received less than 15 percent of the vote in those states (and the congressional districts therein) that set thresholds did not qualify for delegates. For 1980, the party made this a requirement. States were mandated to have some threshold, but had some latitude in setting it. Primary states could establish a threshold up to 25 percent, and caucus states could set a threshold as low as 15 percent, but no higher than 20 percent.

On the surface, that looks like an attempt to protect President Carter. Yet, a threshold that low functionally only rewards an incumbent by warding off a minor challenge; nuisance challenges. Such a threshold potentially becomes beneficial to an incumbent in the case of multiple challengers as well. The more candidates who run increases the likelihood of candidates not qualifying for delegates. In the case of one major challenger, the threshold becomes a non-issue. One strong candidate is likely to meet that threshold anyway.

1980 was also the cycle that saw the innovation of the "window rule" in the Democratic nomination process. The intent was geared more toward keeping frontloading at bay and the calendar formation orderly by setting a second Tuesday in March through the second Tuesday in June "window" for states to conduct their primaries and caucuses. While the goal was focused more on state-level actions and protecting exempt Iowa and New Hampshire, a secondary motivation behind the window rule was to tamp down on the resources a prolonged process required the candidates and the party at all levels to expend. This rules change did not clearly benefit Carter in 1980.

Finally, 1980 was also the cycle that witnessed the DNC banning the use of loophole primaries, where delegates are included on the primary ballot and directly elected (as opposed to being selected through caucus/convention processes with candidate input). That cycle stands out as the only exception during the early part of the post-reform era (the first 20 years) when the loophole primary process was permitted. Although insider candidates tend to be the beneficiaries in such systems, their usage at the state level in the early post-reform era was not widespread. It would not have affected things much more than at the margins. Both Carter and Kennedy could lay claim to being insiders in 1980 anyway and went on to basically split those contests.

While the sum total of all of these 1980 cycle Democratic rules moves gives the impression of helping Carter in retrospect, in reality the maneuvering was consistent with those of a party in search of the "ideal" rules in or out of the White House. And during the early post-reform era, the Democrats were out more than they were in.

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Given that context, the focus can shift back to the present and the Republican rules for 2020. FHQ's reaction to the news that the RNC intended to drop the debates committee was less about that than it was to the idea that change was intended to protect the president. In fairness to those reporting on the 2018 spring meeting, there were members of the RNC would provided "protection" as at least part of the rationale for the move.  Randy Evans, the Republican National Committeeman from Georgia, came right out and said, "Obviously this is intended to dissuade a primary challenge to the president."

FHQ will not dispute that. The move certainly continues to send a clear signal that the Republican National Committee remains in lockstep with the president. Reminders of the clarity of that point emerge every time during the Trump era that the RNC has gathered for one of its seasonal meetings.  But whether eliminating this committee protects the president is predicated almost entirely on the premise that President Trump would participate in any hypothetical primary debates. As with many things concerning this president, there is a great deal of uncertainty around that idea. We do not know whether Trump would opt into such a debate. In fact, there is a pretty good argument to be made that he would sit out any such event, not allowing the platform to any would-be challengers.

If one falls on the Trump would not participate in primary debates anyway side of things, then eliminating this primary debates committee does not really accomplish all that much. If anything, it protects the Republican National Committee. It saves this standing committee from the obligation of NOT sanctioning any debates in the event of a challenge to the president.

Imagine a time in 2019 after Republicans have hypothetically lost control of one or both houses of Congress, the Russia investigation has persisted (and Democratic oversight of the administration in that area and others has intensified), and a challenger to Trump's renomination -- let's call him John Kasich -- has emerged. Now imagine that this debates committee still exists, but the president has no interest in debating his hypothetical challenger. That committee is, by rule, supposed to sanction debates with input from the various campaigns. If one campaign wants to debate and another does not, then what is the committee -- the RNC -- to do?

A party in such a position might be inclined to side with the incumbent president in that case and not sanction any debates. But it would have to turn a blind eye to the other campaign(s) and any following/resistance (to the president) both within the RNC and among rank-and-file Republicans to do that. That would be handing to that group the type of structural grievance that Bernie Sanders and his supporters used against the DNC throughout the 2016 process and into the 2020 cycle for that matter.

Instead of going down that road, the RNC opted to get out of the debate-sanctioning business altogether for the time being.1 Again, that move continues to send a signal that the national party is behind the president, but the elimination of the debates committee is protecting the RNC more than it is the president. It eliminates a potential problem down the road before it materializes. And yes, in fairness, that may never have materialized anyway. But the RNC has that cover now regardless.


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1 One alternative option the party could have pursued was a minor edit to Rule 10(a)(10). The standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates could have been left in place but would only be activated in years in which there is no incumbent Republican in the White House (seeking renomination) or little or no competition for the nomination. Of course, those are tricky concepts to define that may end up slippery slopes back to the same sorts of problems the RNC would have in 2020 if the committee had survived. Eliminating the committee with the option of bringing something like it back at the discretion of the RNC chair should conditions change is the cleanest option.

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