There should not be any doubt that conservatives and Republicans share the same goal in the upcoming 2016 presidential contest. We must elect a president who opposes the “fundamental transformation” of the United States begun long before, but given a substantial boost under the current administration.
There is probably little else that the various groups within the broader center-right coalition would agree upon, however. The “big tent” of Lee Atwater’s vision is present, but rallying the troops under a common banner is no simple feat. Worse, the mistrust and outright backstabbing over the last few cycles further hinders the coalescing of the coalition.
The Democratic Party is no completely controlled by the “progressive” wing of statists, and worse. There is no policy put forward by that party that is not a furthering of federal control of our lives. Given our two-party system, the Republican banner is the last redoubt remaining for those who share the vision of the Founders, of limited government and individual liberty. Conservatives/liberty-minded and other generally-right persons must share the Republican Party, even though we don’t always trust one another. The Libertarian Party is fun to flirt with, and has ideas worth incorporating, but is not a viable option if unseating progressives is the primary goal.
With that in mind, the Republican Party, and Reince Preibus its Chairman, have introduced some reforms to the presidential nominating process. One of these reforms brings the debates within the purview of the party. The party itself will now determine the debate timing, format, rules and invite or exclude participants as well as selecting moderators. On balance, this makes sense as the mainstream press has, more or less, forsworn any objectivity and simply uses the debates to further the left’s agenda. We, on the right, should be pleased with this first step.
However, those of us of conservative/Tea Party inclinations should also be wary. As mentioned before, the party’s interests are not always the same as ours (see immigration as an example) and we are right to be cautious before full-throated approval is given.
Hugh Hewitt, radio talk show host and Townhall.com blogger wrote a piece recently praising Mr. Preibus for the changes and made some recommendations. His piece is here. Mr. Hewitt, whose radio show I listen to regularly, can fairly be described as in the establishment camp. He offers some advice to the party on how to make the debates interesting, but misses some opportunities to make the debates truly showcase a right-of-center perspective and to help close ranks within the coalition.
First and foremost, the rules for including candidates in the forums must be published as soon as possible. Excluding candidates preferred by a substantial portion of the conservative base would be a recipe for electoral disaster once again. The last thing we need is for a sizable number of people to say “a pox on both their houses” and stay home. The fairness principle is going to be watched closely and the rules should allow for challengers to the establishment/donor-wing of the party should have leeway to raise money and name-recognition without being penalized for doing so.
I agree with the notion that too many debates probably did not help our side, especially with the MSM stage managing them. But, not allowing insurgents is antithetical to our freedom-based principles, limits our choices to “approved” candidates and would have precluded a 1980 Reagan victory if similar rules held in that election. The party must recognize that its internal reputation is not much better than its external one. Closing that gap is critical to victory.
Second, we can not just assume Hillary is the 2016 nominee. She may well be, but let’s not plan our campaign and selection of a candidate around that thought. No good leader assumes only one scenario is possible.
Mr. Hewitt spends a fair amount of time discussing location selection. He has some good points, including Hillsdale or Colorado Christian is a great recommendation, but I think this has less influence on voters most other factors.
Other than the inclusion/exclusion of candidates, moderator selection and format will probably sway wary conservatives more than anything else. Inspired choices here could lead to fascinating debates, but might also serve to show that the party is interested in hearing from the various factions within its coalition. Here, I think, Hewitt shows his establishment heart. He acknowledges the radio host community, but his inclination is towards mainstream journalists and those who appear on his show. Who cares what Ezra Klein wants to ask our candidates? I certainly do not. He may be interesting to read or listen to for conventional Democratic talking points, but as someone to vet our nominee he is not.
Conventional journalists should be on the list for name recognition and to help expose questioning to conventional interests. But Hewitt’s does not draw enough from the liberty/conservative wing. How much more interesting would the debates be if Michelle Malkin, Sarah Palin, Kurt Schlichter, Hermain Cain, Mike Lee, or a Dana Loesch were peppering the candidates with questions that reflected the concerns of the conservative wing. What if P.J. O’Rourke could represent the libertarian side?
Closely related to this and crucial to the end game is showcasing our talent to represent the brand that the Republican Party wants to convey. I think Mr. Hewitt misses this point entirely. The debates will provide the best forum to “brand” the party and our suite of capable leaders that will stand apart from the amateur hour of the Obama Administration. So, who asks questions is important; how they ask those questions and what they ask are equally important.
With that being true, we should have our terrific lineup of governors included in the pool. Those that are not running, or have already dropped out, should be asked to pose questions about how our candidates intend to govern, what they would do to rectify the lack of professionalism displayed by the current executive branch and what pitfalls they may foresee in governing effectively.
Having current state chief executives talk about real-world issues of governing would not only display for the non-Republicans that the party is serious and knows how to be effective, but will also allow party members to hear the candidates talk about navigating implementation of their policy. This is a level of depth nearly unheard of in presidential debates. While it can get mucky, it is crucial to effective governance and deserves a hearing.
We should also invite the nearly rans, once rans and recent droputs to participate in a meaningful fashion. What was important to their candidacy, what were voters asking about, etc? Including these people shows respect for their constituencies which is increasingly important to our unwieldy coalition.
Finally, while Mr. Hewitt eschews townhalls, he dismisses them too quickly. One of the reasons voters seem to like townhalls is that they bypass the middleman. Voters want to see people, normal people, ask questions without having to be filtered by someone else. The Twitter question gimmick appears to be a way of pretending to hear from “common people” but most voters recognize that these are simply filtered by the moderator. Are townhall questioners vetted as well? Sure, but at least it is a head nod toward populism.
To me, a better idea would be to include one Republican voter in each of the debates as a guest questioner. The guest can not be a party hack, or the local state chairman. That would be silly and not help the cause. Somehow, Mr. Preibus should find a way to solicit potential questioners and select the winners in some fair manner. Now, I do believe that once selected, the person should work with the party on questions and questioning. We can not have completely irrelevant questions or have the debates demeaned in some fashion. It will be a challenge. The payoff, however, of listening to the concerns of everyday Americans is huge, while fighting the Romney problem of appearing detached from the concerns of those everyday Americans.
The opportunity to heal the wounds within the party and rebrand the party externally is tremendous. It needs to happen for the sake of the country and the conservative movement. We no longer have a William Buckley or Ronald Reagan who commands the respect of all factions. We are on our own. The work to bridge the gaps is hard and requires humility and acknowledgement that there are good intentions on all sides.
Make it happen, Mr Preibus. No one else has as much influence on the process to make this successful.