BEFORE THE CLOWN CAR became a metaphor, there were real cars full of clowns.
Ridiculously small, they were driven into the circus ring, and then an impossibly large number of clowns piled out of them.
I always thought the clown car involved a trap door in the circus floor and one in the bottom of the car, so that clowns could surreptitiously be fed into the car. But clown historians say there were no trap doors. The clowns used their contortionist skills to pack themselves inside, and the average clown car could, depending on the regalia like parasols, funny hats and musical instruments, disgorge between 14 and 21 clowns.
Today, a clown car is a political metaphor describing any group of politicians packed into in an unintentionally silly event. While an entire presidential campaign could be described as a clown car, the term more often it is used to describe smaller events, like presidential primary debates.
While the first televised general election presidential debate broadcast in 1960 was staid and serious and had a very basic set, it drew an incredible audience of 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million.
But staid and serious went out of style, and both electronic pizzazz and TV's insistence on fast-paced shows requiring "snappy" responses from the debaters transformed political debates into infotainment.
Though the number of general election presidential debates is controlled by a bipartisan commission, there is no such commission for primary debates. And their number has bloated upward like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day float.
There were 20 primary debates among Republicans in the 2012 campaign season, and while some serious issues were discussed, the debates also served as reality TV shows, forcing some contestants off the island through invective, low blows or just poor debate skills (which have little to do with the skills needed to be President).
The Republican debates revealed how weak and wacky the Republican field was - so they did serve some purpose - but they did not help the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, polish his image. One direct consequence of the exhausting debate-a-palooza was a Republican National Convention sapped of energy, where delegates exhibited about as much enthusiasm as Clint Eastwood's empty chair.
Today, the Republican leadership, such as it is, wants fewer debates for 2016, but lacks any effective mechanism to achieve it. Enter Reince Priebus.
Although the story has gotten more complicated than it's worth, basically it comes down to this: CNN is making a documentary on Hillary Clinton, and the entertainment division of NBC is doing a miniseries on Clinton's life, with Diane Lane playing Hillary.
Priebus assumes that both will be adulatory and will help promote Hillary's possible 2016 presidential candidacy to the detriment of Republicans. He has therefore sworn that if CNN and NBC do not abandon their projects by Wednesday, he will ask the Republican National Committee to refuse to "partner with these networks in 2016 primary debates nor sanction debates they sponsor."
I know exactly what you are saying right now. Who the hell is Reince Priebus?
Excellent question. Reince Priebus (rhymes with Benedict Cumberbatch) was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee on the seventh ballot on Jan. 14, 2011, because delegates thought his name was Latin for "none of the above."
He was re-elected in 2013 because few Republicans were aware the party even had a chairman and nobody wanted to waste money changing the stationery.
You can hardly blame Priebus for attempting to make news, especially news that could reduce the number of debates and hopefully keep the Republican field as secret as possible. Surprisingly, however, some well-known TV news personalities have agreed with Priebus and said that the NBC drama and CNN documentary on Hillary would cause the public to distrust TV news personalities.
I reject this argument for three reasons:
1. The public could not possibly distrust TV news personalities any more than it already does.
2. The NBC entertainment division has no less a right of free expression than the NBC news division. And there is no reason to believe the CNN documentary will affect its news coverage. (When The New York Times revealed that Fox Television Studios is in talks to produce and internationally distribute the NBC miniseries on Hillary, Priebus was perfectly OK with that because Fox is like, well, Fox.)
3. Why assume both projects will be pro-Hillary? The NBC miniseries script isn't even written yet. And the CNN documentary could include names that Hillary would rather not hear again, like Benghazi and "that woman" Monica Lewinsky.
Yet Priebus wants a book burning before anybody has seen the books.
Fortunately, Priebus' threat is a thoroughly empty one. The Republican National Committee does not control the debates or the candidates. The candidates will appear at whatever debates they choose, sponsored by whatever outlets they choose.
Priebus thinks he owns the circus. But, in reality, he doesn't even control the clowns.
Roger Simon is POLITICO's chief political columnist.