Last month, the Republican National Committee took pity on a nation still healing from a presidential election cycle that featured over 20 separate primary debates and said, "Lo, let us not do this anymore." And so they announced a plan that would hold the number of primary debates to a reasonable nine to 12, all gently spaced out over the primary season and equitably distributed among important primary states. Now, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- himself a prospective GOP candidate -- is vowing to blow this up. Yahoo News' Jon Ward has the story:
Jindal also made clear he has no plans – if he runs for the nomination – to abide by the RNC’s attempt to keep candidates from participating in debates that are not sanctioned by the party committee.
“I know there is a lot of concern, especially in this town among Republican party leaders,” Jindal said. “There’s this ideal of theirs, this idealistic belief, that if we could just have fewer debates, if we could have a gentler, kinder nominating process, that would be good for the party and good for the nominee. Well you know what? Democracy is messy.”
In the RNC's "Growth And Opportunity Project" report (known to many as the "RNC autopsy"), the organization takes the position that "the number of debates" had "become ridiculous" and that they were largely just "taking candidates away from other important campaign activities." In the report, the committee noted that as recently as 2000, a primary year with no GOP incumbent, there were only 13 debates in total. By 2012, by their reckoning, the debates had begun too early, and featured such ridiculous spectacles as "two debates [taking] place within twelve hours of each other."
But there's no question that when the RNC acted to streamline the debate process, its motives went well beyond ending a debate process that brought all of us dull, repetitive pain. Another concern was that the long debate schedule provided too many opportunities for the fringier candidates to make fleeting gains in the polls, and pull the front-runners into ideological corners from which they'd be hard-pressed to extricate themselves. This is only hinted at in the "autopsy" ("It should be recognized that depending on a candidate's standing in the polls, some candidates will want to participate in an unlimited number of debates"), but in subsequent reporting, this has been more explicitly expressed. As Politico's James Hohmann and Alex Isenstadt reported last month:
The push to get greater control of the debate process grew from the feeling that Mitt Romney was damaged during the 2012 nominating process by the large number of televised gatherings. They helped elevate candidates like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, all good debaters who otherwise had little realistic shot at the nomination. Romney, ganged up on from the right, made his own damaging comments, such as betting Rick Perry $10,000 in one debate or endorsing the concept of “self-deportation” in another.
Of course, Romney made his "$10,000 bet" at the ABC News debate on Dec. 10, 2011, and his "self-deportation" comments at the NBC News/Tampa Bay Times debate on Jan. 23, 2012. As this time frame in the election cycle is at the heart of the RNC's revised debate schedule, it may be premature to declare these reforms to be a cure for candidates saying things that will haunt them. Nevertheless, the belief that it somehow is, is central to the RNC's reckoning.
That said, Jindal's objections are worth considering. As Ward notes, the revision to the debate schedule is part and parcel of a broader set of rule changes and reforms that "make it easier for a well-funded, well-known candidate -- the kind of man or woman acceptable to wealthy donors and political elites -- to secure the nomination." And one candidate who comes to mind as having benefited from the free media appearances that the debates provided and having gains that did not prove to be ephemeral was Rick Santorum -- whose small campaign might not have had a puncher's chance against Romney were it not for the frequent opportunities he had to contest Romney directly.
Jindal says he won't play ball by the RNC's rules. Unfortunately for him, those rules are rather explicit in how they deal with people who won't play ball. As Hohmann and Isentadt related, "To give their push to control the debate process teeth, the party announced Friday that any candidate who participates in a debate that isn’t sanctioned by the RNC will not be allowed to participate in any more sanctioned debates." So the first time Jindal breaks with the plan will be the last time he gets to participate in the RNC's reindeer games.
That said, whether Jindal plans to break dramatically with the RNC's machinations remains to be seen: While he calls the committee's efforts "futile," he goes on to suggest that he will simply seek out other, debate-like settings, ply his trade there and cross his fingers that the RNC will see them as different. "People might come up with creative names," Jindal tells Ward, "They might call them forums. They might call them discussions. They might call them whatever.”
Jindal is, by no means, the first person to react with alarm over the RNC's long and ongoing push to make the stakes favorable for well-heeled, well-financed candidates -- just chat up a Ron Paul delegate from the 2012 convention. But there is probably a better way to attack this than insisting on a return to the loco debate cycle of 2012. Surely there is a happy medium between "just anointing the candidate who raises the most money" and "have 25 debates, each more pointless than the last."
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