Opinion: Columnists

For the Republican debates, every detail counts

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Opinion,Hugh Hewitt,Columnists,Republican Party,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Reince Priebus,Media,RNC

Chairman Reince Priebus has done a lot of great things for the Republican National Committee he heads and the GOP he leads.

But of all the good work, the three great "Priebus reforms" will be the re-ordering of the primary calendar for the presidential nomination process, the decision to move the nominating convention forward to late June or early July and the decision to seize control of the previously out-of-control debate schedule for the primaries and caucuses, which will choose the 2016 Republican standard-bearer.

The first two reforms took only the agreement of the members of the national committee. The latter required a thoughtful innovation that, while coercive, is only gently so and is likely to be welcomed by legitimate contenders for the nomination.

Marginal candidates may not be so happy, preferring a long, drawn-out marathon of debates as a means of selling themselves and their brand, and not necessarily with gaining the nomination.

God bless Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Georgia businessman Herman Cain, but they had no legitimate chances of being the nominee in 2012.

And who can forget the great debate of 2000, featuring George W. Bush, John McCain -- and Alan Keyes?

Order and purpose needed to be restored, and Priebus and his colleagues have done so in an elegantly designed way.

The RNC will sponsor eight or so official debates. They won't tell anyone not to go to any other "debates" or forums or penalize states for holding non-RNC designated gatherings via delegate penalties.

Henceforth, the RNC will simply exclude from its official debates anyone who participates in a non-official debate.

The major candidates with established credibility will cheer and continue to make their plans and attend events. The marginal candidates will have to choose to go to non-sanctioned events or wait until the RNC series begins.

Tough choice, but a fair one. If one of the "bigs" wants to skip the RNC debates and try to crash them later, the RNC has got to be prepared to make its rules stick.

Networks and cash-hungry state parties and conservative organizations will try to set up "forums," invite all to come, then claim the participants are not really debating.

And that's just one of many likely attempts to game the RNC. For which the RNC ought to have a waiting response: Where four or more of you are gathered on a stage in the name of seeking the nomination, you are crossing the line and out of the main events.

(Panels of two or three candidates make for interesting campaign events and allowing for state parties to raise money, and thus allowing up to three candidates on stage at the same time makes sense. Leave it to the candidates to try and avoid being the fourth man or woman left out.)

Priebus and the team will make the new rules stick. They have to. The damage from a score of roller derby debates is enormous.

But the RNC ought to anticipate the dodges and publish rules to live by if you want to make the elite eight debates.

Next: Where and when to hold them, and how to handle the mechanics?

Here the real planning and thinking must be focused, and it should start now. Coach John Wooden used to begin his first UCLA basketball practice of the year by teaching his players how to tie their shoes.

His point was that the smallest details mattered, and so they will with these debates and their end-purpose of helping the GOP pick the strongest nominee for the 2016 nomination.

Every decision should be tested against that goal: The debates ought to help the party nominate the strongest nominee for the 2016 contest with Hillary Clinton.

To that end, a schedule that provides an appetizer debate in the early fall of of 2015 makes sense, as does its location at the Ronald Reagan Library, for which there is both precedent and strong messaging reasons for choosing.

Sure, the Gipper defeated the Soviet Union and launched an era of great economic growth, but he also won two smashing big Electoral College and popular vote wins. A great place to establish as the starting point for the debate series.

The spacing of the next seven debates ought to include stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, each of which had a sanctioned February 2016 primary or caucus.

The locations chosen in those places shouldn't have to be the traditional college campus — community colleges and high schools can help show the party is committed to education reform.

The GOP could also send a message by choosing locations such as Hillsdale College in Michigan, Colorado Christian College in Denver and Thomas Aquinas College in California.

Traditional schools — both secular and faith-based — will help reassure voters of the traditional values of the GOP coalition and show that higher education need not be the product of liberal ideology.

Now, how to staff the events? Who gets to ask the questions? On this hangs the whole project.

First, a number of formats ought to be used, but no "townhalls." That is a diseased format, prone to manipulation and gimmickry, and it should be tossed from the general election process as well.

Focusing specific debates on specific subjects, such as Obamacare and what should replace it, the national defense, economic growth and tax reform, are terrific ways of bringing definition to what has often been an absurd circus.

It would be wise to give one debate over entirely to "the war on women" theme, moderated by Megyn Kelly of Fox News and featuring panelists like Mary Katharine Ham of Hot Air, ABC's Diane Sawyer, Town Hall's Katie Pavlich and MSNBC's Joy Anne Reid.

Note that the panel proposed here is run by an experienced television anchor, and while two of the panelists are from conservative new media, two are from ABC and MSNBC, respectively, and Reid is a well-known, smart and affable lefty.

As Priebus confirmed on my show last week, there is no desire to "protect" the would-be nominees from the lefty wolves, whether dressed in MSM sheep clothing or out of their MSM closets, just to assure that the debates work for the party, not for the agenda journalists of the left.

Another debate would be well-run if given over to journalists, anchors and pundits all under 35 and including some who work exclusively online.

Still another could address seniors and use only as panel participants veteran journalists eligible for their Social Security checks.

Still another could seek out panelists only from non-Anglo communities. One could be moderated by a solo host who does little more than direct the flow of questioning among the candidates.

The talk radio community should be represented among the people asking questions: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, my colleagues on the Salem Radio Network, Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, as well as Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and Dennis Miller.

Public intellectuals such as William Kristol, Max Boot and Thomas Sowell deserve places at these tables as well.

Indeed, the RNC might want to run a couple of "radio only " debates in addition to the televised elite eight hosted by the pros of my field but featuring an even greater distribution of question askers from new media such as Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, Guy Benson of townhall.com, Dave Weigel of Slate, Philip Klein and Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner and Ezra Klein of Vox.

Always make our candidates take tough questions from all angles, emphasis on "all," not the agenda journalists of the television and print Manhattan-Beltway media elite.

At the same time, including widely respected pros like the Washington Post's Dan Balz and CNN's Jake Tapper makes abundant sense, provided they are balanced by news and opinion journalism pros like the Examiner's Mark Tapscott and Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard.

Every detail matters. The schedule is complex enough and much will depend on getting the dates of the Cleveland convention (with the Cavaliers getting first pick in the NBA draft lottery, you know this is fated to happen) and elite-eight televised debates fixed and published will help all concerned start planning their lives, their campaigns and their path to the White House.

So, well done, Reince Priebus. On to the next set of hurdles.

Hugh Hewitt is a nationally syndicated talk radio host, law professor at Chapman University's Fowler School of Law, and author, most recently of The Happiest Life. He posts daily at HughHewitt.com and is on Twitter @hughhewitt.

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