The RNC Chairman's Debate (Part 1)
The room at the National Press Club where today's Republican National Committee Chairman's Debate is taking place is packed, with many of the familiar faces from the blogosphere, right and left, in attendance. A rule of thumb: If the attendee is over 50 years old, he or she is a committeeman; those under 50, generally, are media. (That does suggest, by the way, that the committee could use some new and younger blood.) Saul Anuzis, living up to his reputation as an accessible and media-adept pol, ventures out to shake hands -- with the media. There are far more media representatives in attendance than RNC committee members.
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, and Tucker Carlson, editor of the Daily Caller, presented a symbolic pairing -- conservative establishment meets new media.
Unlike the run-up to the 2009 RNC election, following the election of Barack Obama, the mood is somewhat festive. And, to be candid, as long as Michael Steele and his gaffe parade can be eliminated, many of the committeemen express quiet satisfaction that any of the challengers would make a solid chairman and a vast improvement over the hapless Steele.
A plugged-in activist surmises: "Reince [Priebus] has all the momentum. His argument is that he is friends with the Steele people and the other people. My instinct is that he will lead on all of the ballots including possibly the last. Strategically, the question is whether there will be an anti-Reince coalition that forms. And how big is it?" And further, I would suggest, is whether being friends with the Steele people is such a good thing.
The opening statements were uncontroversial, revealing somewhat as to the candidates' personalities. Ann Wagner was perky and ebullient. Anuzis was subdued and serious, stressing that the party is at a crisis point. Maria Cino sounded like the sort of tough-as-nails administrator who would run a bank or other business, stressing her organizational record. Steele talked about the dire straits in which the party found itself. (But does anyone in the room think he was responsible for the rebound?) Priebus smartly recounted his own record of success in electing Republicans in Wisconsin.
What's the most important function for the RNC chair? Anuzis said bluntly, "Fundraising . . . and then everything else." Cino listed: "Get our fiscal house in order. Rebuild our fundraising operation. Build strong state party organizations." Steele talked about fiscal management, a touchy subject given his own mismangement of the RNC and financial scandals. He meandered for a bit, reminding me of his penchant for staying on message. Priebus vowed to spend five or six hours a day on getting funds from major donors. Wagner gave a laundry list of functions for the chairman, ending with a plea for fundraising.
On state party support, there was a sameness to the answers: stay out of state parties. On defense of marriage, all echoed the notion that traditional marriage is foundational to our nation and the family unit is the ideal. Wagner gave the same spiel, adding that she has been married -- "I guess happily" -- for 20 years. That drew a laugh, perhaps a sigh of relief that these candidates were not simply reading off the same talking points. On substance, there wasn't a sliver of separation between any of them.
Biggest mistake for the GOP in last ten years? Priebus said: "It's not doing what we said we would." Wagner said: "Too much debt." It's not clear whether she was talking about the party or the country. Cino finally said something original: "Passing McCain-Feingold." The audience perked up, grateful once more for a break in the monotony. Steele said the party stopped talking "to people," and he threw in a reference to "the party of Lincoln" and reaching out to Hispanic voters. It was the first reference to "diversity" in the debate.
What disqualifies you as a Republican? Wagner sidestepped what disqualifies a candidate and instead recited the traditional three pillars of the Republican Party (economic, foreign policy, social conservatism). Anuzis cited Ronald Reagan's 80 percent rule -- you are a Republican if you agree with the party 80 percent of the time. Cino directly quoted Reagan on the three legs of the stool (economic, foreign policy and social issues). Steele cautioned against declaring certain people to be outside the GOP. Priebus took a different tact: If you are pro-choice, pro-GM bailout, etc., "you may not be a Republican."
All said they are in favor of pro-life coalition-building. All said they are in favor of reaching out to new Republicans. At the half-way mark, you got the sense that other than dumping Steele, it doesn't matter much which of the four challengers gets the job.
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