Why the GOP must seize control of the primary debates

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ve been harping about this question for years now: Why do Republicans allow the mainstream media to frame the debate?

“Framing the debate,” of course, is an expression which commonly means defining the narrative — but in this case, I mean it literally: Why do Republicans continually subject themselves to primary debates where the rules and the agenda are solely set by the MSM?

This is a serious problem, and while it may be too late to matter in 2012, it should be corrected before the next election cycle. In politics, the question matters more than the answer. Certain topics have built-in skews. For example, a really good answer from Rick Santorum on a question about, say, contraception is still not as helpful as a mediocre answer on a question about “Operation Fast and Furious.”

This is not to say that Republicans should avoid tough questions, but it is to say that 20+ debates filled with divisive “wedge issue” questions will obviously have a negative cumulative impact (in terms of the public perception of Republicans). Meanwhile 20+ televised debates focusing on why Barack Obama is a bad president would likely have a very different impact.

Of course, I am reluctant to trust the Republican Party to interfere with anything, much less the debates. But it has become painfully clear something must be done. And it seems reasonable to conclude the RNC ought to be more involved in the terms of debates.

It’s not like the RNC isn’t already involved in other (arguably, less important) areas. The RNC currently punishes states when they break rules governing the scheduling of primaries (for example, several states were penalized 50 percent of their delegates for scheduling contests in January.) Meanwhile, state parties get to determine who is qualified to vote (some states require voters to be registered Republicans, while other states have open primaries.)

Yet, the party seems to exercise almost no control over what has become the most important events in actually determining who wins those contests — the debates.

Twenty years ago, of course, this might have been a moot point. The MSM controlled the means of production. But that’s certainly not the case today. Rather than ceding control of the debates to the media, the RNC should instead set a certain number of debates (10 might be a good number), and manage the operation in a neutral and fair manner.

So how might this work, logistically?

This would likely involve bringing in serious conservatives and/or center-right journalists (not political hacks) to moderate. (Imagine an economic debate moderated by Larry Kudlow, Arthur Brooks, and Chris Chocola — or a social issues debate moderated by Eric Metaxas, Mike Huckabee, and Laura Ingraham.)

To be sure, organizing and conducting these events would cost the GOP some money — but imagine how much the current debates cost in terms of PR and brand problems.

One idea would be to invite the current debate hosts (Fox News, MSNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC, ABC News, etc.) to broadcast them on a rotating basis. There’s always the chance that some of the cable networks would balk at this, but again, game theory implies that some of them would see ratings gold, and would determine to accede to the new policy (and if their competitors boycott, all the better.)

In the unlikely event that all the networks, including Fox News, refuse to comply with the new policy, there’s always streaming video. (Again, 20 years ago, this would not have been possible. But times have changed, and it’s time the RNC gets with the program.)

After 20+ debates, it should be painfully clear that something must be done. The GOP has seemingly no control over the number of debates — or the questions. And sadly, the candidates face a tragedy of commons dilemma, which prohibits them from boycotting the system. As reluctant as I am to say this, it is now clear the GOP must intervene.

Matt K. Lewis