By Bill Schneider
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.