Opinion

The Great Debate

But can the GOP revise the party?

By Bill Schneider
August 21, 2013

The temptation for political parties to rewrite the rules after every defeat is irresistible. The Republican National Committee did not resist when it met in Boston last weekend. The committee passed a resolution aimed at limiting and controlling the 2016 primary debates.

It started way back with Hubert Humphrey, who won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1968 without running in a single primary. Outraged Democrats rewrote the rules, effectively turning nominations over to primary voters and caucus participants. Their motivation was simple: “No more Hubert Humphreys.”

What they got instead was George McGovern. That did not work out too well, so after the 1972 calamity the party tried again. They changed the rules to dilute the power of ideological activists: “No more George McGoverns.”

Instead they got Jimmy Carter. No sooner did Carter get elected than Democrats realized they had made a terrible mistake. Carter, an outsider, wasn’t a real Democrat. The party was not going to let that happen again, so after the 1980 disaster, when Ronald Reagan won, the Democrats assembled another commission.

This time the purpose was to increase the influence of elected officials in the nominating process: “No more Jimmy Carters.” In 1984, the Democratic establishment got its way and nominated the insiders’ favorite — former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Bad mistake. Democrats decided this process now gave insiders too much say. So the party appointed a “fairness commission” after the 1984 catastrophe, when Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. Its mandate? “No more Walter Mondales.”

After that, Democrats organized Super Tuesday to give the South more influence over the party nomination. And what did they end up with in 1988? Michael Dukakis.

Now Republicans are trying to fix the process. Their objective? “No more Mitt Romneys.”

The Republican National Committee passed a resolution committing the party to “bring more order to the primary debates and ensure a reasonable number of debates, appropriate moderators and debate partners are chosen.” They think Romney lost because all those primary debates — there were 20! — gave their nominee too many chances to screw up. Like calling on illegal immigrants to “self-deport.” And betting his rival $10,000.

The party intends to support only officially sanctioned debates with Republican-friendly sponsors and moderators. And to penalize candidates and organizations that participate in non-sanctioned events. The complaint is that debates highlight differences among the contenders and encourage them to attack one another. But isn’t that what campaigns are all about?

The GOP is right when it says the number of primary debates has become excessive. They are certainly repetitive — the same cast repeating the same lines week after week. The 2011-2012 debates were a dizzying experience, with different candidates capturing the party’s fancy every month (Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senator Rick Santorum). Every state party, every media outlet, every organization (even YouTube) saw the primary debates as an opportunity for self-promotion.

One member of the national committee told Politico, “The debates should be viewed as a job interview, not an opportunity to score political points.”

In a job interview, the interviewer holds all the cards. The applicants compete to see who can make the best impression.

That’s not so far removed from the old days (before 1972) when party bosses, not primary voters, controlled the nominations. Not very democratic — but much more orderly.

Primaries are public events. The press screens the candidates to help voters make a decision. The problem is that the party and the press have different agendas. The party wants to promote its brand and its eventual nominee. Republicans believe the press agenda is exactly the opposite: to discredit conservatives and promote Democrats.

Actually, the media’s agenda is to make news. Conflict makes news. Audiences will not tune in to watch a bunch of politicians agreeing with one another. No story there.

Primary voters want candidates who show some fight. Reagan showed fight in 1980, when he challenged the moderator of a New Hampshire primary debate who tried to shut off his microphone: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen!” Reagan shouted. The audience went wild.

Reagan later recalled, “I may have won the debate, the primary — and the nomination — right there.”

When the moderator opened a South Carolina Republican debate in 2012 by asking Gingrich about his marital history, he angrily denounced the moderator and the question. So what happened? Gingrich won that primary. He was rewarded for taking on the news media.

A spirited contest for the party nomination often makes the winner look stronger. Barack Obama’s battle with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination didn’t do him any harm. It made him look tougher. He defeated the renowned Clinton machine.

Republicans do have a debate problem. Debates often expose their candidates as outside the mainstream on issues like climate change and evolution and contraception and immigration and rape and safety net programs. The reason for that is that many Republican candidates are outside the mainstream on issues like climate change and evolution and contraception and immigration and rape and safety net programs.

It looks like Republicans are trying to hide something. But the debates are not the party’s problem. The party is the party’s problem.

 

PHOTO (Top): Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), stand on stage before a GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Jan. 16, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert): President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal
Langsdon

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

the republican party needs to be sure they get some fair moderators, not democratic shills like Candy Crowley. By all accounts, Romney won the second debate with President Obama, but lost the third one mostly because his responses were papered over by Ms. Crowley. By the way Bill – aren’t you a democrat yourself?

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive
 

Tea Party Republicans have a thought problem. Their thoughts, exposed in debates make clear the party platform. Climate change is normal and cannot be effected by people. Pollution is of no consequence and is good for you, it builds your immune system, until you get cancer, then, so what. The people on earth have been here for a few thousand years and evolution is the “democrats” way of brain washing people to believe is science. Science is a farce and is not real, it is a tool used by the devil. Contraception is evil because it allows the estrogen producing beings to have individual sovereignty. The Bible states that is a sin. Rape is good and women deserve it for walking around men. Immigration is good as long as the people are illegal, that way, they are easier to exploit and have no rights. Corporations are people, and people are toys. Only certain healthy people should have “affordable” health care, otherwise the multi-national corporate CEO profit margin is adversely effected. If you get sick and have no health care, you should loose your house and belongings paying for the debt created by getting sick. It is a good idea to poison the food and water, thus insuring a good corporate return on investment. Coal, nuclear and oil are good. Solar, wind and other alternative energy in bad. Clean water and air is bad and people should do everything in their power to pollute, when ever possible.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive
 

A few more thoughts. Tax paying citizens are similar to a fruit or vegetable. They are there to be harvested whenever the World Bank, IMF or FED RES feels like it. Savings accounts are bad. Real money backed by actual assets are bad. Imaginary money that can be printed at will is good. WAR is the best thing ever, and peace is bad. People should have taxation without representation. Pork barrel spending for the shadow economy and for the MIC is really, really, really a good thing. Poor people and old people and disabled people and off-white people are really, really bad and interfere with all the taxes going to the WAR machine. Prisons and jails are a good thing that produce a lot of wealth and free labor. Arresting as many people as possible to get them is the “system” is a good revenue generating tool, while ensuring any “extra money” goes to the criminal non-justice system. Giving out lots of pills is good, while natural plants are bad. Giving out most of the farm bill subsidies to mega toxic farms and toxic meat factories is good. That way we have dead zones for the ocean. Creatures that live in the sea might swallow you or bite you and the bible says eating most fish is a sin. So why not just destroy them, oil and pollution are supported by the Bible, while nothing else is sacred. Trees are very bad and should be destroyed on sight. Cows and pigs are the best thing ever and their rights trump that of a human, any day. And, don’t you dare photo a cow or a pig, photos of food are illegal. But, it is ok to photograph Paris Hilton’s junk and post in on every magazine cover. Tampons are bad and guns are good. Tampons can be used as a “projectile.”

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive
 

Until the GOP stops turning ‘conservatism’ into a pseudo-religion, and their primaries into a purification ritual, then tough times are truly ahead for them. Voters want candidates that are willing to represent them, not their party, whether we voted for them or not.

With their best candidates labelled ‘RINO’s and run out of the primaries, midfielder independants are left wondering when the 50-yard line got moved so far right. It’s only making it easier to score against them.

Posted by Zourin | Report as abusive
 

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