After the 2012 election, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus acted on behalf of the RNC to seize control over the schedule of pre-nomination debates among Republican candidates. More than 20 televised debates had occurred in 2011 and early 2012, as publicity-hungry candidates had agreed to appear at virtually any event organized by a media outlet that could assure them of public attention. Priebus responded to this explosion of debates by enacting a party rule requiring all debates to be endorsed by the RNC and produced with its assistance, cutting the number of official events by about half for the 2015-2016 campaign season. Any candidate appearing at an unauthorized event would be banned from participating in the official debates, thus compelling candidates who might otherwise seek to maximize their visibility to respect the limited number of events recognized by the national party.
This new rule subjecting all debates to RNC approval was sold to conservatives as a way to prevent overly liberal media outlets or moderators from contaminating the Republican nomination process. (Many Republicans had been dissatisfied with the fact that MSNBC had sponsored a Republican debate in 2012 while former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos had moderated a debate aired by ABC.) But it seemed clear that the reform plan enacted by Priebus was in fact primarily motivated by the belief, buttressed by the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long sequence of debates in 2011-2012 had ultimately damaged the Republican Party's chances in the 2012 general election, and that a shorter, more controlled debate schedule would reduce the future influence within the GOP of ideological purists unconcerned with electability.
Secondary candidates like Herman Cain had demonstrated the capacity in 2011 and 2012 to gain public attention through the debates that encouraged other candidates to position themselves farther to the ideological right in order to compete, which threatened to limit their appeal to voters outside the party once the nomination contest had ended. In particular, Mitt Romney's remarks advocating "self-deportation" as an immigration policy, which occurred in a Republican primary debate on January 23, 2012, were blamed in retrospect for Romney's poor showing among Latino voters in his November contest with Barack Obama—which in turn was widely believed to have significantly contributed to Romney's loss to Obama in the electoral college. (After the election, Priebus described Romney's immigration rhetoric as a "horrific" mistake that "hurts us" as a party.)
The RNC's assertion of control over the debate schedule was often portrayed at the time as a cunning move that reflected Priebus's procedural savvy in pursuing the goal of a Republican presidential victory in 2016. Over the past few days, however, the risks of Priebus's strategy have become increasingly clear. Once the RNC exercises influence over the timing, moderators, formats, and media sponsors of the debates, the party effectively shares responsibility for any aspect of each and every event that inspires dissatisfaction among candidates, campaign advisors, party activists, and other participants or observers.
During the Republican presidential debate last Wednesday, several candidates accused the CNBC moderators of asking slanted or inaccurate questions, provoking a vocal response from the audience and a round of post-debate accusations by conservatives that the network was biased against Republicans. Feeling some heat for having approved CNBC as a participant in the round of party-authorized debates, Priebus responded by hurriedly canceling the debate scheduled for February 26, 2016, which was to have been produced as a joint venture between NBC and the Spanish-language network Telemundo.
A number of candidates seized this moment of political weakness to make additional demands of the debate organizers and the RNC itself. Ben Carson wants the candidates to deliver opening and closing statements. Lindsey Graham, now stuck in the undercard debates due to his low position in the polls, wants a promotion to the big time. Ted Cruz wants the debates to be moderated by admirers of his in the conservative media universe. Because the debates are not, and cannot be, organized in order to provide the greatest potential strategic benefit to every individual candidate, such gripes are commonplace in every election—but the national party's newly central role in the production of the debates made it a natural target of candidate frustration this year, which forced Priebus to scramble awkwardly to assuage the contenders' various complaints before the candidates banded together to effectively cut the RNC out of the debate-planning process.
The RNC has gotten itself entangled in a bit of a mess. The national party leadership's (understandable) goal of maximizing the probability that the nomination process produces a legitimate and competitive Republican presidential standard-bearer inherently clashes with the interests of unviable or unelectable candidates—who constitute a clear majority of the current field—as well as conservative purists who wish to use the debate process to enforce strict ideological discipline on the eventual nominee. Under the American system of presidential nominations, the formal party organizations are constrained in their ability to dictate the mechanisms of candidate selection; the perpetual conflict between the national committees and individual states over the scheduling of primaries and caucuses is another, more familiar example of this limitation.
Priebus can't admit it publicly, but a series of debates hosted by mainstream media moderators who occasionally provoke candidates to rail against tough "liberal" questions benefits the cause of electing a Republican president more than debates moderated by friendly ideologues who merely encourage candidates to compete among themselves to win the favor of outspoken conservative activists. Yet a national party that is complicit in exposing its presidential candidates to questioning that many Republicans view as biased or unfair will predictably find itself a primary target of the resulting backlash. Priebus tried to be clever, but he turned out to be just a little too clever.