The Republican National Committee's decision to exclude CNN and NBC from the 2016 primary debate process is about Hillary Rodham Clinton, right? Only partly.
The more important takeaway from the whole saga is that party leaders know they desperately need to limit the number of debates in 2016. And the step the committee took Friday allows the national party tighten its grip over a process that, in the eyes of many Republicans, cost the GOP in 2012.
Just ask RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
"The fact of the matter is I've got to protect this party and our nominees. We don't want a whole lot of 23 debate rounds like we've had before," Priebus said Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
Leaving NBC and CNN out of the fold (to be clear, the networks can still host debates, but they won't be officially sanctioned by the party) simplifies the RNC's task of limiting the number of debates.
"Look, if you're not going to have 23 debates, these guys are making it a lot easier for us to pare that down to a reasonable number in front of people and entities that actually give a darn about the future of the Republican Party," Priebus added.
Republican candidates debated 20 times in 2011/2012. The process allowed lesser-known candidates to access hours of precious earned media time to build their profiles and, in the process, ding the frontrunners. The debates also highlighted before a national audience positions that proved costly later on in the campaign. To wit: Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" remark on immigration.
They long parade of debates is also tailor-made to expose weaknesses. For the most part, the most memorable debates are the ones in which something goes terribly wrong for one of the candidates. Look no further than Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "oops" moment, arguably the part that stands out the most from all 20 GOP debates.
As we've written, there are other reasons why it was smart for the RNC to pick a fight against CNN and NBC over their decisions to produce films about Clinton, which Priebus cast as an attempt to tip the scales in Clinton's favor ahead of a possible 2016 campaign. The mainstream media and Clinton are both viewed with heavy skepticism in the GOP base. So, it was a battle sure to fire them up.
But don't lose sight of the bigger picture when it comes to anything debate-related for the GOP headed toward 2016. The overarching goal for the party is to ensure the free-for-all Republicans lived through in 2012 doesn't happen again.
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"Attorneys for McDonnells to meet with prosecutors as key phase opens in gifts probe" -- Rosalind S. Helderman and Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post
"Republicans increasingly eager to get the word out — en español" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post
"Christie’s Re-election Engine Gets in Gear for a Bigger Race" -- Jonathan Martin, New York Times
"Chris Christie and Rand Paul: Is the GOP big enough for both of them?" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post