The last round of Republican presidential primaries, and the debates in particular, exposed a whole host of problems and dysfunctions in the GOP.
Otherwise marginal candidates were able to build a substantial following by giving the audiences what they wanted—Newt Gingrich rocketed to success in South Carolina by denouncing moderator Juan Williams for one of his questions—and decent candidates could see their fortunes collapse as a result of saying the wrong thing to the wrong audience. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s major mistake wasn’t forgetting which federal agency he planned to shutter as president, but showing sympathy for the children of unauthorized immigrants.
It’s for all of this that the Republican National Committee suggested a revamp of its debate rules in its Growth and Opportunity Project report, the GOP “autopsy” published four months after the presidential election. In addition to a proposed limit to the number of debates—10 to 12, rather than 20 or more—the RNC also floated a move away from network-hosted debates and toward something more centralized and controlled by the national Republican Party itself. In doing this, the GOP would recruit moderators with “outstanding” reputations for “independence, diligence, and toughness.” Not only would voters get a better sense of the candidates with fewer debates and better moderators, the thinking went, but a more ordered debate process offers a better picture to the broader public.
We’re still far away from the next presidential race, but that hasn’t stopped Republican leaders from planning for these debates. And in their search for independent, diligent, and tough moderators, RNC insiders have reportedly floated three possibilities: conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin—men who fit the description, as long as you define those words to mean nothing at all.
That Republicans want different moderators is understandable. Last year, when reporters and news personalities fielded questions, there was a focus on superficial issues and meaningless trivia (“Elvis or Johnny Cash?” asked CNN’s John King, moderating a debate between men who wanted to lead the country). But showing dissatisfaction by floating these men as potential moderators is the opposite, moving in a more constructive direction.
Each of these commentators has made his career by indulging the worst of the conservative movement. Limbaugh’s career highlights include calling unauthorized immigrants an “invasive species,” describing the NFL as a “game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons,” giving an incredibly racist description of a speech by Chinese leader Hu Jintao, and—famously—calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” for using birth-control pills.
Like Limbaugh, Mark Levin is a widely syndicated talk radio host with a large audience and a penchant for saying terrible things. He’s also the author of Liberty and Tyranny, which argues, in all seriousness, that liberals are “Statists” who are “counterrevolutionaries” opposed to the founding principles of the United States, to say nothing of the Constitution. He’s also one of the many conservative personalities who have devoted their careers to enforcing purity among Republican politicians. Earlier this summer, for instance, he excoriated House budget chairman (and former vice-presidential candidate) Paul Ryan for supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
But at least that’s adversarial. Sean Hannity has never met a Republican talking point he hasn’t liked. As a Fox News anchor and radio host, he’s promoted the “death panels” lie about the Affordable Care Act, as well as defended the GOP’s near-disastrous confrontation over the debt ceiling in 2011. If the goal is to offer challenging questions to GOP presidential candidates, then Hannity is ill equipped for the role.
Now, it should be said that the sourcing on this—which comes from The Washington Examiner—is anonymous, so it’s worth taking with a grain of salt. Indeed, Limbaugh has already said that he wouldn’t participate, as he’s “too famous” for the party’s nominating contest. Still, when confronted with the idea of hosting a debate with conservative talk-radio hosts, RNC chair Reince Priebus said the thought it was a “very good idea,” and that “there’s a lot of good people out there that can actually understand the base of the Republican Party, the primary voters.”
The RNC’s election postmortem ends on a perceptive note: “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
To choose any of these men to moderate a Republican presidential debate is to completely disregard this analysis of where the party went wrong. If given a chance to question the presidential candidates, figures like Limbaugh, Levin, and Hannity will almost certainly use the opportunity to enforce conservative orthodoxy. They’ll “vet” the candidates, demanding allegiance to the unpopular, right-wing beliefs of their audiences. You can easily imagine a Limbaugh-hosted debate where “winning” requires a candidate to declare his undying hatred of Barack Obama and announce his opposition to all reproductive-health services, the federal government, and Muslims. In which case, it will be all the problems of last year’s primaries, amplified, and turned to 11.
For its own sake, the Republican Party should reject this idea as forcefully as possible. There’s nothing about building a better process that requires you to showcase the worst members of your political tribe.