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For GOP substance, deregulate

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON

Since the emergence of the party system in the 1790s, and the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804, presidential candidates have been selected by several different processes.

First by their party's congressional caucuses; then by nominating conventions controlled by the party's organizations; then by conventions influenced by primaries and caucuses (Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democrat nomination without entering any primaries); and, since 1972, entirely by primaries and caucuses that have made conventions nullities.

Now, responding to the fact that the 2012 nomination process was ruinously protracted, the Republican National Committee suggests reforms that might, like many improvements, make matters worse. This is because of a prior “improvement” — campaign finance reform.

The RNC suggests a shorter nominating season with fewer debates — none earlier than Sept. 1, 2015. The 20 debates in 2012 were actually one fewer than in 2008. But in 2000 there were 13. In 1988, seven. In 1980, just six. The May 5, 2011, debate was eight months before the Iowa caucuses. In 1980, the first was 16 days before Iowa voted.

The RNC report does not challenge the role of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in beginning the delegate selection. Perhaps it is not worth the trouble to challenge these states' anachronistic entitlement; like all entitlements, it is fiercely defended by the beneficiaries. But a reform process that begins by accepting this crucial component of the status quo substantially limits possibilities. By the time these four states have had their say, the field of candidates often has been considerably — and excessively — winnowed, and the outcome is, if not settled, given a trajectory that is difficult to alter.

Supporters of Sen. Rand Paul, or of any other candidate thoroughly unenthralled by the policies and procedures that have resulted in Republicans losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, are understandably suspicious of any proposed changes that might tilt the nomination process against the least-known and less-lavishly funded candidates. They are especially apt to squint disapprovingly at the RNC's suggestion of regional primaries.

The party, however, must balance two imperatives. One is the need to enlarge the number of voters participating in the process. Hence the suggestion that primaries should replace all nominating caucuses and conventions — events where ideologically motivated activists and insurgent candidates can more easily predominate.

The party's second imperative is to preserve opportunities for less-known and financially challenged candidates to break through. This is where government restrictions on campaign contributions restrict the range of candidates from which voters can choose.

Existing restrictions on large contributions to candidates are commonly called “post-Watergate” reforms. This is more accurate as a matter of chronology than causality. Democrats began advocating contribution as well as spending limits years before Watergate concluded in 1974. They were appalled that large contributions from a few wealthy liberals made possible Eugene McCarthy's 1968 anti-war insurgency against President Lyndon Johnson, and propelled George McGovern's doomed nomination in 1972.

Suppose political contributing were deregulated, which would deregulate political speech, the dissemination of which is the principal use of campaign contributions. This would make it easier to design a more compressed nominating process, with a reduced role for the first four states, which also would allow marginal candidates a financial opportunity to fight their way into the top tier of candidates.

Anyway, tinkering with the party's political process is no substitute for improving the party's political substance. No nominating process featuring an array of candidates as weak and eccentric as the Republicans' 2012 field would have produced a much better result.

So, the party must begin whatever 2016 process it devises by fielding better candidates, which should not be so difficult.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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