- - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

His critics keep expecting Reince Priebus to trip up, but it hasn’t happened yet. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, who has out-raised his Democratic counterpart by better than two to one and has initiated programs that will make Republicans technologically competitive next year, has been attacked from all sides for the way this year’s pre-primary debates have been designed even though his say over them is relatively limited.

As the 2012 elections ended, Republican professionals and pundits alike agreed that something had to be done about the wildly proliferating number of debates in which Republican presidential wannabes were forced to participate. By the time they’d run the debate gauntlet most of them felt and looked to voters like a bunch of third-rate entertainers scurrying from one county fair to another.

Mr. Priebus decided to do something about it and worked mightily to cut the number down. The Democrats down the street were cutting the number of debates their anointed candidate would be forced to endure and, by most accounts, went too far so that as their front-runner collapses the other pretenders are complaining loudly and regularly that the party reduced such encounters to keep them from mounting a real campaign against Hillary Clinton.

They are dead right. Front-runners rarely want to confront a trailing challenger on a stage that elevates them to the same level or risk saying something that will hurt their own campaign. This seems particularly the case this year as Mrs. Clinton appears offended by anyone who dares question her and is likely to come across as intolerant in a face-to-face confrontation with any of her challengers.

To his credit, Mr. Priebus walked the tightrope between too few and too many debates pretty well and deserves real credit for doing so. What he didn’t and couldn’t know as he was entering into agreements with the various broadcast and cable networks that would “host” this cycle’s debates is that almost everyone he’s ever met would be running for president.

Most Republicans believe the Republican National Committee has or should have total control over the debates, but this isn’t actually the case. The problem is legal as well as practical. If the party took complete control, the debates would essentially become party ads and the party would have to pay for them in “hard dollars.” To avoid this, the RNC negotiated agreements that gave the party some control to, for example, object to a Chris Matthews as moderator, but had to cede control over the criteria used to decide which candidates would qualify to participate.

Everything seemed to be working out until it became obvious that there were too many candidates to accommodate in a single debate on the same platform at the same time. Fox, which hosted the first debate, and CNN which will host the next one insisted that no more than 10 candidates could appear on the platform at once and each developed poll-based measures to decide who to include and who to keep out.

Polls have been used historically to limit minor wannabes access to the debate stage in the past, but with so many candidates vying for access so early, the use of such data was bound to cause problems. Candidates who haven’t polled high enough to get on the main stage have complained with some justification that the way things are being done isn’t fair. The criteria developed by CNN ignored the fact that the world changed after the first debate as voters processed new information and were turned off by some candidates and drawn to others. In the first debate, Carly Fiorina performed superbly and has since enjoyed a surge in popularity. But the CNN criteria would have denied her the fruits of her success by keeping her off the main stage for the second. This outraged the candidate and her campaign managers who demanded that Mr. Priebus pressure CNN on her behalf.

They believed that her performance in the Fox debate should have catapulted her onto the main stage for the CNN debate. They had a good point, but Mr. Priebus found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He no doubt agreed with them and thought the CNN scheme was flawed, but couldn’t force or even interfere in a way that would make it look like the party was trying to “take things over.

Earlier this week, CNN itself decided that unless they treated Ms. Fiorina fairly and made sure that the real contenders were on the main stage they would look foolish and the ensuing controversy would swamp the debate itself. They wisely reevaluated the criteria, Ms. Fiorina will get her chance to play on the same stage with Trump et al and Mr. Priebus emerges once again smelling like the proverbial rose.

Whether he played a role in the CNN decision or not is less relevant than the fact that Mr. Priebus’ handling of the debates has allowed his party to avoid a train wreck and leave while Democrats fume about their party leaders working conspiratorially to protect their damaged front-runner.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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