You know the drill: Every four years, Republicans vying for the presidential nomination move hard right to defeat their challengers in debates and primaries, then are forced to move to the center to be palatable to the mostly-centrist American voter.
And every four years, the Republican loses (at least in the last two elections). So far this century, no one seemed to notice that George W. Bush, a “compassionate conservative” despised by the hard right, didn’t suffer the same indignities. Sure, he battled his foes during the nomination, but he wasn’t forced from his core.
That hasn’t been true the last two elections. The two GOP nominees, “maverick” Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were both considered fairly moderate, at least by conservative standards. But during primary season, and even before, they were hammered in debates by hard-right candidates, forcing them to take positions they would have difficulty defending in the national election.
The New York Times summed up the recent history: “What party leaders are principally concerned about is reducing the number of debates to avoid a repeat of the 2012 campaign, when a series of insurgent candidates used the forums — 20 in all — to draw attention to their candidacies. Some party leaders say they believe that the number of debates pushed Mitt Romney to the right in a way that contributed to his loss to President Obama.”
Yeah they did. Death for Mr. Romney, who wasn’t much liked within conservative circles — he needed all the help he could get. Getting pummeled in those 20 debates left the base less than thrilled, and millions didn’t bother to vote (Always wonder why: So Mr. Obama is better than Mr. Romney? Really?)
What’s more, fringe candidates like former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were funded by sugar daddies with deep pockets. They reveled in making Mr. Romney look not conservative enough, without regard to what would happen in the general elections. A slew of lesser candidates continued to agree to debates, forcing Mr. Romney to participate as well.
Now though, Republicans are taking back control of the nomination process. GOP committee members last week voted to penalize presidential candidates who participate in Republican debates not sanctioned by the national party.
That would mean that if a majority of candidates decide to skip a debate, say one on MSNBC or the ever-more-liberal ABC News, others wouldn’t be able to just have their own debate — or pressure a front-runner into a battle of wits with a batch of weaker wannabes.
And it would mean the end to questions like this from liberal hosts sympathetic to Democratic candidates, say, George Stephanopoulos, who asked: “Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”
Mr. Romney answered: “The idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not, is kind of a silly thing, I think.” The liberal media reported: “Romney hates women.” End of debate.
Republicans are also moving to speed up the pace by moving up their nominating convention. In the last two elections, the candidates weren’t formally nominated until late August or even early September, meaning a short run-up to the general. Talk is swirling that the party will move its convention up to June — even early June — to give the nominee more time to raise cash for crunch time.
From the ground now, 2016 looks like a year for Republicans. But they never fail to amaze with their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. At least this time, they won’t start out behind — or let some insurgent candidate call the shots.
And it’s about time.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.