GOP's unsolvable debate mess: Why RNC's new reform plan is doomed

The right is convinced that biased debate moderators made their candidates look bad. Here's its brilliant solution

Published May 12, 2014 2:45PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013.      (AP/Chris Carlson)
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013. (AP/Chris Carlson)

The Republican National Committee came to a firm conclusion following the 2012 presidential primaries: The more its candidates are on public display with each other, the worse it is for the party. They should be credited for this realization. But will limiting the number of debates, as the RNC has voted indirectly to do, change the effects of the debates that survive?

On Friday, the RNC gave final approval to chairman Reince Priebus' plan for comprehensive debate reform. It's a modified carrot-and-sticks approach, by which we mean there are no carrots. (It's a sticks approach.) Politico reports:

A group of 13 RNC members, essentially operating under the control of party Chairman Reince Priebus, will choose the timing, location and media partners of the 2015-2016 Republican primary debates. They will insist that conservative panelists join moderators from the mainstream media.

To make it stick, the plan would crack down on candidates who participate in debates that aren’t sanctioned by the party — by barring them from ones that are.

There are two goals, then.

The first is to reduce the number of primary debates, of which there were approximately 20 in the previous cycle, which allowed the debate winner/most vociferous screamer to win whatever primary happened to come up immediately afterward and extend the calendar aimlessly toward its inevitable coronation of Mitt Romney. Priebus' plan should certainly achieve that. It's unclear what the final tally will be but one RNC meeting attendee tells Politico they're thinking "six to 10."

Then there's the other, harder to enforce goal: reshaping the content of those debates by "[insisting that conservative panelists join moderators from the mainstream media." Priebus insists that this complaint comes from the "grass roots," who are tired of the secret liberal MSM questioners playing agents provocateurs and launching intra-GOP quarrels.

“Any speech you give nowadays to the grass roots, there’s no bigger applause line than when you say, ‘This time around, we’re going to have something to say about the moderators and debate partners,’” Priebus said in an interview. “People go wild!”

“They want good moderators that aren’t in the business of playing gotcha, and it’s our responsibility to become the custodian of the nomination process,” he added. “The last couple cycles, the RNC forgot about their responsibility of being the custodian of the nomination process.”

So they're thinking of having Rich Lowry or Bill Kristol onstage to ensure no questions cause any sort of debate or friction within the party. Sounds journalism-y to me ... does it sound journalism-y to you?

But as is so often the case whenever the GOP cites the "mainstream media" as the force behind any sort of intra-party problem, they're using a reliable scapegoat. The perceived problem isn't clandestine Democratic operatives posing as moderators with the intention of sabotaging the GOP presidential prospects. The problem is the medium of television, wherein television networks seek to attract viewers. The network needs "viewers" to train their eyeballs at advertisements, which brings the television networks "profits." And a surefire way to attract these eyeballs is to create drama and fighting and other forms of spectator entertainment.

This doesn't matter if you're a liberal, centrist or conservative network -- you want fighting, because fighting makes good television! The RNC must know this because, according to the Politico piece, CNN (a bland centrist network that the Republican base nevertheless perceives as somewhere to the left of Marx) and Fox News (a right-wing news channel) are two of the networks with which the RNC is most disappointed:

CNN and Fox News, which together hosted 12 of the 20 debates last cycle, are less enthusiastic. Debates were a ratings boon for both channels in 2012, and an opportunity to showcase talent. But it was the cable networks that contributed most to the sense of primary debates as Wrestlemania.

CNN’s elaborate, doom-laden introduction videos came in for heavy criticism. Fox News forcing the candidates to raise their hands if they’d agree to a $1 tax increase if it meant $10 in spending cuts also bothered a lot of people on the right.

The RNC can get whichever network it wants -- CNN, Fox, Russia Today, whatever -- and stack the deck with Lowry and Kristol and Jonah Goldberg and George Will and whichever moderators it wants. But the networks will still want drama and fighting and debate within their debates, because that's what the people watching them will want.

Besides, it's not like the moderators have to go out of their way or ask leading questions to spark fisticuffs. All the moderator has to do is say, "Umm ... immigration?" and it will be on.

Oh, and don't smile too much, Democrats. You'll have to go through this crap again in 2016, too.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Cnn Debates Editor's Picks Fox News Gop Media Reince Priebus Rnc Russia Today The Right