Byron York
"They're really thinking outside the box," says one well-connected source of the Republican National Committee's effort to reform its system of presidential primary debates. "They're looking at everything."

Everyone knows the RNC leadership believes there were too many debates last time around and intends to cut the number in half for 2016. And by now everybody has heard of the group's decision to shut out NBC and CNN from sponsoring debates if those networks go forward with Hillary Clinton documentaries that many Republicans believe will be little more than campaign commercials.

But what has gotten less attention is that Republicans are fundamentally rethinking their whole debate system. And that could result in a very different kind of GOP race in the next few years.

The biggest change under consideration is a move to break the connection between debates and television news organizations. Under today's system, news networks sponsor almost all the debates. They control the moderators, content, and production, and in the end exclusively broadcast the program.

"Why can't we have more than one outlet?" asks Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman who served on the RNC's reform committee and is still in touch with officials on debate and other issues. "One of the options could be for the RNC to sponsor its own debates, to spend a serious amount of money to build a set, design it, organize it, run it, and make the feed available to all, so that it could be broadcast on numerous outfits."

That leads to the inevitable issue of who will ask the questions. "The RNC has to pick credible, challenging, realistic, independent moderators," says Fleischer. The field of choices, he adds, is wide open. "It could be a conservative radio personality, a conservative columnist, a former White House aide or presidential campaign aide, someone who has been there before."

Fleischer and party officials say the RNC does not view the change as an either-or proposition. Future campaigns might have hybrid debate schedules; the RNC might produce some of its own debates while still partnering with news organizations for others. "Let's say the first debate is an RNC debate," says party spokesman Sean Spicer. "The second one is on Fox, the third one is on Bloomberg, the fourth one is RNC ..." And so on. (Note: I am a Fox News contributor and was a panelist in a 2011 debate co-hosted by Fox and the Washington Examiner.)


Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner