Who Cares About Primary Season Debates?

I haven’t written about the essentially silly story of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus threatening to ban NBC and CNN as hosts of 2016 presidential nominating contest debates unless they drop plans to air special programming about Hillary Clinton. Why? Well, it’s not clear to me that the networks are dying for the right to host those debates, so the gesture may be just a cheap way for Priebus to engage in two of his party’s favorite spectator sports: media-bashing and Clinton-bashing. And in any event, if the Republican Party wants to formally treat its nominating process as an internal conversation within their own “base” carried exclusively on Fox News, that’s fine by me; it would represent truth in advertising.

But as Paul Waldman and Jamelle Bouie note at TAP, there might be a good civic byproduct of this dispute: fewer candidate debates.

[T]his could be just a handy excuse for the chairman to justify cutting the number of presidential debates in 2016. Heaven knows his party wasn’t well served by the more than two dozen they held during the 2012 primaries; they were such a ridiculous clown show that they did untold harm to the party’s image. Of course, that was less because of the inherent trivializing nature of televised primary debates than because the GOP candidates were, in fact, a bunch of clowns. If your candidate pool is dominated by the likes of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, then there’s almost no way to keep the party from looking foolish.

Perhaps next time around, the charismatic and well-qualified Republican candidates will thrill the public with their inspiring message and thoughtful policy proposals, and voters will rise up to demand more and more debates, leading to a white-knuckle showdown between the RNC and the networks. Or maybe it’s all just bluster.

More likely, another debate-heavy nominating contest on the GOP side would be a boon to the superficially articulate candidate who tells “the base” exactly what it wants to hear. In 2012 it was Newt Gingrich. If he runs, in 2016 it would almost certainly be Ted Cruz. He’s the guy who should be quietly begging Priebus to back down and keep the 2016 show on as many screens as possible.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.