Yesterday, both CNN and NBC announced they were cancelling their Hillary Clinton biopics. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had told both news outlets that they could not be allowed to moderate a GOP debate if they went forward with the films, which were widely derided by the chattering class as free campaigning on Clinton’s behalf.
At the time I praised the move, in part because it was one element in regaining control of the primary process that had grown too long, too cumbersome and too divisive. Now Priebus can tell his committee that the networks caved and that this demonstrates that the RNC, not outside groups or media outlets, will call the shots in the GOP primary process. A GOP committeeman said last night the win “gives him momentum and credibility.”
Republicans should hope Priebus uses this “win” to trim the primary process but not to deprive the eventual nominee of some debate practice and some base building. This is truly the Goldilocks challenge — have some debates but not too many, speed up the primary selection process but not too fast, have an early convention (so party money can be released at the beginning of the summer) but not so early that the nominee is still struggling to consolidate support.
On debates, it would be a mistake to choose softball debate hosts. The GOP should want its candidates fully vetted and each to have found his comfort zone by the time he gets to the general election. Ideally, a limit on the number of debates (five to 10, perhaps) and an effort to make them as substantive as possible, by focusing on designated topics, would be to the eventual nominee’s advantage.
But let’s be candid: The real problem in 2012 was that it was too early in the careers of a bunch of up-and-coming politicians. In 2016 they may have a more plausible run. That doesn’t mean all of them will run, but it is almost certain that there will be an improvement in the quality of the contenders. And that, despite all the early jousting and the rule-fiddling is what matters. Generally, better candidates — more likable, superior at communicating, better focused — win both in primaries and general elections. Starting with a competitive, quality field is still the top priority if Republicans want to win back the White House.