Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Sunday defended the party’s non-binding resolution boycotting debates on CNN and NBC during the 2016 presidential primaries if the networks air films on early Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Mak recounted.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Priebus said, “These guys are making it a lot easier for us to pare [the number of debates] down to a reasonable number.”
Mak notes the conventional wisdom that, “The 20 GOP debates in 2012 are widely seen as a mistake by Republican leaders, who claim that bias by the hosting networks undercut their candidates and ultimately damaged Romney, their eventual nominee.”
But this conventional wisdom is largely a myth. When a candidate loses a presidential race, it’s quite common for analysts to look back and blame all sorts of things for that candidate’s eventual loss, even if those same things were once viewed as an asset to winning candidates.
In 2008, for instance, Obama’s more than 20 debates during his protracted primary against Clinton were seen as crucial to him becoming more seasoned as a candidate. Likewise, if anything, the 20 debates helped Romney by making him a stronger debater, which was no doubt one reason he was able to clobber President Obama in their first debate.
When I tweeted a similar argument last Friday, Romney’s strategist, Stuart Stevens, responded, “Debating improves debating. But 20 plus filled with process questions doesn’t help.”
True, over the course of the GOP debates, Romney made statements to appeal to a primary audience that were more difficult to defend during the general election. But this can’t be blamed on the debates. It gets to Romney’s inherent weaknesses as a candidate. The bottom line is that he had a moderate to liberal record as governor of Massachusetts, which included campaigning for and signing a law that was the model for Obamacare, so he had a lot of work to do to reassure a skeptical Republican electorate that he’d pursue conservative policies as president.
Walking the tight rope of trying to reassure the base while remaining a viable general election candidate was something that Romney was going to have to deal with no matter what.
To be sure, as a political reporter who has to watch every debate as part of my job, I’d be able to live with fewer debates. This is especially true given that in 2012, Obama ran uncontested, so the only primary debates were on the Republican side. In 2016, given that the nominations are going to be contested in both parties, there could be over 40 combined debates for the political world to digest.
But there’s a difference between saying that the marginal utility of each additional debate rapidly deteriorates at a certain point, and saying that excessive debates damage a party’s eventual nominee.