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. 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, 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 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.
There will be severely enhanced penalties for state parties that jump to the head of the line, into February. Previously, line jumpers were penalized half their delegates. Now, for example, one senior Republican — not Priebus — involved in rethinking the rules says Florida could go from more than 100 delegates to nine.
Regarding debates, the new rules, not yet fully formulated, will be the first rules. The object is to prevent a recurrence of the jungles of 2007-2008 (21 debates) and 2011-2012 (20 debates).
Marginal candidates will resist any restrictions. Suppose they accept invitations to unauthorized debates. Will more plausible candidates be tempted to join them? Not if any candidate who participates in unauthorized debates is, before the convention begins, denied a substantial portion of whatever delegates he or she has won.