WASHINGTON — “If Reince Priebus from Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the Republican ‘establishment,' God help us,” says the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. His physical presence is almost as unprepossessing as James Madison's was, and his demeanor is self-deprecating. But with meticulous — Madisonian, actually — subtlety, he is working to ameliorate a difficulty that has existed for two centuries and in 2012 wounded the GOP.
The Constitution's Framers considered the presidential candidate selection process so important they made it one of the four national institutions they created. Three were Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidency. The fourth was the presidential selection system based on the Electoral College, under which the nomination of candidates and the election of the president occurred simultaneously.
Since the emergence of parties in the 1790s — something the otherwise prescient Framers did not foresee — nominees have been selected by the parties' congressional caucuses, next by national conventions controlled by the parties' organizations, then by conventions leavened by popular choice (state primaries and caucuses). Finally, because Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination without entering any primaries, the selection of nominees has been entirely by popular choice since 1972.
Priebus' perilous, and probably thankless, task is to rally a fraying party behind rules that will solve two entangled problems — the delegate selection calendar and the number of candidate debates. The delegate selection process needs to be long enough to test the candidates' mettle but not so protracted that it leaves the winner politically battered and financially depleted.
Debates must be numerous enough to give lesser-known and modestly financed candidates opportunities to break through. They must not, however, be so numerous as to prolong, with free exposure, hopeless candidacies. Or to excessively expose the candidates to hostile media debate managers. Or to leave the winner's stature reduced by repetitive confrontations.
The GOP's 2016 selection calendar might be compressed at both ends, creating two intense months in March and April. There will likely be no Republican delegate selection events — primaries, caucuses or conventions — prior to Feb. 1. The four prima donnas — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — probably will have February to themselves because this entitlement, like all entitlements, is immortal.
The Republican convention could come as early as late June, so the nominee can have more time and general election contributions to build momentum entering autumn. Furthermore, perhaps 10 days could be added to the current requirement that all delegates must be selected 35 days before the convention. The last delegates would be selected no later than mid-May.