National Opinions

OPINION: Republican debates are a recipe for chaos

With the first Republican presidential debate scheduled for Aug. 23 rapidly approaching, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the institutions and practices for choosing presidential nominees are a terrible fit for the choices the party has to make.

This is perhaps easiest to see in the loyalty pledge that the Republican National Committee is requiring candidates make in order to participate in the debates. The pledge to support whoever wins the nomination has already meant that Donald Trump critic Will Hurd apparently won’t be allowed to participate. It also puts any other anti-Trump candidate, such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in the nonsensical position of arguing that Trump is unfit for the office, yet he would still support the former president should he be nominated.

Indeed, the pledge institutionalizes as the Republican Party’s official position that neither attempting to overturn an election nor being indicted on charges of multiple felonies is disqualifying for the presidency and that anyone who believes otherwise will be cut off from party leadership.

The pledge was originally instituted in 2016 as a way of challenging Trump when he was polling well but still not seen as the likely nominee. This time around it works to his advantage. He’ll no doubt agree to the pledge if he decides to attend any debates. If he loses the nomination, he’ll just declare the pledge void because he’ll claim everything was rigged and the nomination stolen from him.

At the same time, Trump still hasn’t committed to participate in any of the debates, including the first one. And that’s reasonable. Right now, he’s the heavy favorite for the nomination, well ahead in the polls and in high-profile endorsements. Political strategists have long believed that frontrunners have little to gain and plenty to lose by debating. That’s why no incumbent president has ever debated any nomination challenger. Trump isn’t the incumbent, but as a former president and two-time nominee, he’s as close as it gets. Indeed, previous strong leaders in the year before the election such as Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 have either skipped early debates or successfully pushed back the first debate.

But the Trump campaign’s disruptive effect extends far beyond debates. The regular schedule of primaries and caucuses, likely to start in mid-January for Republicans with the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primary, could wind up quickly knocking out any alternative to Trump — locking him in as the nominee months before the election and also before he’s tried on felony charges in New York, Florida, and perhaps Georgia and Washington, D.C. Republicans might want him anyway, but even if they don’t, they may be stuck with him simply because of the way the nomination process unfolds.

Part of this chaos (or at least potential chaos) is simply because Trump is so unusual — a candidate wildly popular among a large segment of the party, but unpopular in the overall electorate, in perpetual legal jeopardy and presumably willing to destroy his party’s chances if he doesn’t get his way. That’s been an impossible dilemma for Republicans ever since he won the 2016 nomination, and they still haven’t figured out a solution.


More deeply, Republicans face a difficult dilemma in solving the problem because the entire premise of the nomination process is that it’s the party’s job to give each legitimate candidate an equal chance. After all, the modern system grew out of complaints by activists in 1968, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was able to win the Democratic nomination despite not competing in primary elections at all — let alone debating other candidates. The new system, adopted before the 1972 cycle, tried to force everyone to compete equally for support from ordinary voters in primaries and caucuses.

But the truth is that candidates are not all equal, and it’s strange for the party to treat them as if they were in choosing their nominees. Indeed, in most democracies, nominations are tightly controlled by party leaders or at least by paid formal party members. Indeed, that’s how things were done for presidential elections in the U.S. before 1972. The current system certainly does allow party actors with important resources — money, expertise, connections, access to publicity — the ability to at least influence the outcome, giving them an opportunity to steer away from those who they believe would be disastrous general-election candidates or just awful presidents.

Usually, the differences between leading candidates — former vice presidents, big-state governors, nationally known senators — and fringe candidates is manageable enough that the parties manage to muddle through and wind up choosing from the former and effectively ignoring the latter. This particular party, the same one that took a week to win a vote for speaker of the House, is simply not well-equipped to handle the job. And Trump’s particular strengths and weaknesses as a nomination candidate make it that much more difficult.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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