What the GOP Autopsy Proves

by  Mar 28, 2013 4:45 AM EDT

The RNC’s report on the state of the Republican Party was resoundingly on point. Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief 2012 strategist, on how to fix the phony debates and the troubling influence of corporate money.

  • The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 election analysis (which the RNC wisely elected not to call an autopsy) was an unusually honest and smart self-critique. One of the problems it addressed was the troubling explosion of primary debates. In 1988 there were seven Republican primary debates. In 2000, there were 13. In 2012, the number soared to 20.

Presidential Debate
President Barack Obama smiles as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the third presidential debate at Lynn University on Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (Rick Wilking/AP)

This debate escalation is somewhere between silly and dumb and serves no public good. We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve? Other important national questions are decided more expediently: it only takes 12 shows for The Bachelorette and The Bachelor to pick a mate.

The RNC report recommends cutting the number of debates in half and shortening the debating season. That’s a good start. But I think we should go further. To improve the quality of the debates and eradicate the commercial toxicity tainting the events, news organizations should get out of the business of sponsoring debates.

Let’s don’t kid ourselves. These “debates” have become phony entertainment spectacles not serious news events.

Here’s how Wolf Blitzer touted the Republican primary debate in September 2011, hosted by the Tea Party and CNN:

“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”

This is how World Wide Wrestling is promoted. The only thing accurate about this breathless hype is that, yes, there was one stage. But there wasn’t “one chance” (for crying out loud, there were three debates in less than three weeks), it wasn’t remotely “groundbreaking” and every fifth grader watching knew that neither Tea Party support nor Republican nomination weren’t remotely on the line.

Don’t blame Wolf Blitzer, who is one of the more serious journalists on the air. Blame the system that forces Blitzer into this role. In a different era, it might not have mattered if CBS or NBC sponsored a debate. But in today’s hyper competitive economic environment, with every network and cable news channel fighting hand-to-hand for each eyeball, the pressure to tart and hype is irresistible.

There are many reasons to run for president. But being used to help generate profits and ratings for the news divisions of large multi-national corporations and to promote the careers of on air talent are pretty low on the list. At a certain point, this becomes terribly close to a news organization starting a fire to cover the fire.

How should it work? That’s easy. It should work like everything else in news and politics. The proper role of a news organization is to cover an event, not manufacture it and then cover it. We don’t have NBC-sponsored campaign rallies or CBS-sponsored bus tours, at least not yet. The current model for debates is not a news model, it’s a NASCAR model. Your corporate money buys the right to brand and promote a car and/or an event.